Saturday, 19 September 2015

Taking care of the dead: Intriguing world of mortuary attendants, undertakers, gravediggers


If I knew your job was related to corpses, I won’t have married you –  Undertaker’s wife tells hubby We only lie in the coffins to enable customers ascertain the sizes –  Sikiru, undertaker.

My wife refused to sleep on the same bed with me; my children refused to get close to me–  Akinyemi, Mortuary Attendant.Digging grave for the dead is like  spiritual exercise –  Gravediggers
Mr. Segun  Adeleye had thought all was well with him as an undertaker.The money was not really much, but it was enough for him to get married and start a family. That was 22 years ago. He had got married a few years after getting the job, explaining to his fiancee by simplifying his job – it was all about picking corpses and taking them to the mortuary or to the cemetery for burial. That was until the wife got to learn about the horrible details involved and the unexpected movements, when he could be called at any time of the day to face corpses.
“My wife once told me that if she knew my job involved going to mortuary almost on a daily basis, she would not have married me”, says Mr. Adeleye, who started off as a mortuary attendant but now has his own funeral home on Lagos Island, Lagos State. But he caters for his wife and children with the job and sees his job as a noble profession. “I thought it was rather noble to be an undertaker, serving humanity rather than being idle at home or gallivanting on the streets”, he recalls when he was deciding on taking up the job more than two decades ago. Somebody has to take care of the dead, he says. “Even somebody took care of the body of Jesus Christ after his death, and took him to the tomb where He was buried .”
He says since then, he has been serving humanity as an undertaker to the amazement of members of his family, and has travelled far and wide in the country with God protecting and guiding him.Not many people really take time to consider the relevance of mortuary attendants, undertakers and gravediggers to society until they lose a relative or friend and need their service. Thousands of people die everyday across the world as death is a debt owed by mankind and people are born to die. The dead cannot take care of themselves; they do not think, nor move nor hear nor speak. And based on the mystery surrounding death itself, many people cannot go near a dead person. Somebody once known to be up and doing, partaking in all human activities, suddenly becomes lifeless, and the next stage is to go under the soil, to be seen no more – the mystery of death.
Some people therefore need to take care of the dead: pick them up to the mortuary, wash the dead bodies, embalm and look after them,  awaiting identification or removal for autopsy or disposal by burial or cremation  or other methods; or some others who specially  prepare and take the dead for obsequies and eventual burial. Not to mention those who dig the graves. That is when the mortuary attendants, undertakers and gravediggers become necessary for it is their job, a job which many despise and are scared of. There  is therefore often an aura of queerness about this set of people, despite the fact that they are all earning a living from the job. Curiously, there are beliefs in some quarters that they are not “ordinary” human beings.
At the mortuary, the corpses are in categories, according to Mr. Dapo Akinyemi, a mortuary attendant at the Isolo General Hospital in Lagos State. (Not his real name as he says he still wants to keep his job.) There are those who died as a result of car accidents, fire accidents and collapsed buildings, he says and adds that others were armed robbers, and there were some who died from gunshots and others who died naturally. “We take care of them all regardless of their status.”Becoming mortuary attendant,undertaker, gravedigger
None of these people whose business is to do with the dead admitted to  Saturday Vanguard  of ever dreaming as kids, of ending up one day with their present jobs. “When I finished my secondary school education about 22 years ago”, says Mr. Adeleye, “it was not my desire to work in the mortuary or work as an undertaker for a living.” He says he did not pray to work in the mortuary, but since there was no job, he did not have any option than to accept what was available, but quickly adds: “That does not suggest that I am happy having to stare at the faces of the dead.”
Nobody prays to meet a dead body early in the morning, he says. “Even my father did not like the job of an undertaker, but when my elder brother who was an undertaker died (not due to the job), I resolved to step into his shoes because there was no other work.” His father had objected though, saying he did not want young Adeleye to become an undertaker because Adeleye’s brother had just passed away.While the pain of losing a son to the cold hands of death lingered, it was rather unpalatable for his father to learn that another of his sons would take up the job of an undertaker. His father had sternly objected to his decision.
“I told him the only way out of the seeming quagmire was for him to secure for me a job than that of an undertaker.” But his father could not, and the young Adeleye’s decision to become an undertaker unstoppably took its course that same year in spite of the raging controversy that transpired in the bereaved Adeleye family.Confident that his true identity would not be revealed, 40-year-old Mr. Akinyemi of Isolo General Hospital narrates his journey into the world of the dead. He was employed as a mortuary attendant five years ago. At first, he had thought he couldn not do it. He still recalls the first day he went into the morgue. It was terrifying. He saw dead bodies in their hundreds and rushed out, unable to do anything throughout that day. He was assigned alongside two other attendants, but was left alone to do the job. It was a bad day for him.
 He was so afraid, but had no choice. “There was no other job and I needed to feed my family”, he had said to himself.He says for five hours, he was left in the midst of more than two hundred corpses. “That was the first step of training for me.” Day after day, night after night, he joined his colleagues to watch over corpses. For three months, he was trained on the profession and that was how he gained confidence.Recalling how his children and wife reacted when he told them about his new job, Mr. Akinemi has this to say: “When I told my family members about my new job, they were afraid. My wife refused to sleep on the same bed with me. My children refused to come close to me. I was sad but never gave up.” But after explaining to them that it was a profession and nothing more, they adapted and accepted him and the job after some time.
Then the journey into a career of catering for the dead was begun. He was assigned to different jobs in the mortuary, and started washing corpses, watching over them at night, sanitizing the environment to prevent unpleasant odour around the mortuary. He was trained on how to embalm corpse. Now, he knows virtually all the activities that take place in the mortuary.“I started this work 7 years ago”, says Mr. Uche Nwankwo, 34, a mortuary attendant at St. Gerald Hospital, Kakuri, Kaduna State. “This is the third employment I am having. We are three staff working in this mortuary. I met my wife while working here and she knew my job specifications very well before I wedded her. She has no problem with my work at all. My children are still too young to even understand what I am doing. But it will be up to them to decide what to do if they grow up.
 My job is to train them. I have a very cordial relation with my neighbours and I am an official at our town meeting in this town. I also belong to two church associations.”Recounting how he became a mortuary attendant, Mr Peter Onoja, a Christian from Kogi State working at the mortuary section of Garki Hospital, Abuja says he has the passion to work as a mortuary attendant, though he says he was enveloped with fear for the first two weeks he started work at the mortuary because of the tales he had heard of the dead, but he took the bold step to pass a night at the mortuary and discovered that all the fairy tales about the dead walking and all that are illusions.
“And that people have to knock to enter the morgue is not true. Most times people are afraid to come near me because they believe that before l have boldness to work in the mortuary, I must be using  juju.”On the reaction from his family as a mortuary attendant, Mr. Onoja says his elder sister objected to it but had to let him have his way when she saw the determination in him to go on with the job.“I looked for a job in a mortuary and I got one. Since then, I have been doing the job.  This job is the first and best thing that has happened to me and I don’t see myself doing any other job because it gives me satisfaction.”Mr. Onoja who is in his early 30s says,  “I have passion to help dead people.
 They don’t complain; they are helpless, calm, and peaceful. They need people to take care of them, and that is what I do.  If we are to look at the wages and the discrimination that come with it, many of us would have left the job for other things. I usually marvel when people run away from dead bodies.”Another mortuary attendant, Mallam Sani Umar at Kubwa General Hospital mortuary says people often run away at the sight of a corpse, that many people dread moving close to dead people because of some perceived fears of the dead rising up to whip them, slap them or even scare them deliberately. For 42-year-old Mallam Umar, nothing is too much to give for one’s passion. He is one of those driven by passion to help the dead.
 He happens to be a security man at the Kubwa General Hospital but he is often seconded to work in the mortuary, especially at nights. He receives dead bodies at nights, takes record of them till the supervisor comes the following day and takes it up from there. Mr. Umar says he prefers to work at the mortuary to being at the gate of the General Hospital, adding that he hopes to work fully at the mortuary. “Some people need to offer that help and I’m glad to be one of those rendering the help. Believe me, the dead are the best people to work with because they don’t argue, they don’t fight back and they don’t make trouble. I would always want to be there for them because they are helpless and harmless.
“Working in the mortuary is the most interesting job I have ever done. I have had to appreciate life more than I used to. You see all kinds of bodies and you wonder what this life is really about.” For Mallam Idris Garuba (not his real name as he does not want his name in print), a mortuary attendant at the Yobe State Specialist Hospital, Damaturu, taking up the job a few years ago was due to lack of alternative job, but he says he presently derives pleasure in doing his job as it pays his bills.
Mr. Sanni Sikiru who works as a funeral undertaker on Odunlami Street, Lagos Island, a place that has been tagged “funeral home”, says he was lured into the profession by his elder sister. “She was trained by the male pioneer funeral undertaker, the late MIC. She was the first woman to go into the profession. I became an undertaker at the age of 24, that was 27 years ago. My elder sister lured me into it. She is a pioneer, the first lady of funeral undertakers. I am 51 years old now.” He says he was working as a marketing executive with a reputable company when his sister talked him into leaving his former job to join the business. As a young man in his early 20s then, Mr. Sikiru never thought he could be wining and dining in the midst of coffins nor that he would one day become a coffin designer.
He says members of his family were used to seeing and living with coffins from childhood as his elder sister was in the business then. So, adapting to the business was not difficult for him at all. Shedding light on why they go inside the coffins, he says: “We only lie in the coffins to enable those who want to buy them ascertain the sizes of the type they are buying or to build confidence in people around that there is nothing to fear about coffins.”
On the sizes of coffins, he says “there is long and wide for those who are more than 6ft tall. There must be space in the coffin to accommodate whatever that would be buried along with the dead that would cost extra charges unlike the normal size of coffin.” A mortuary staff at a general hospital in Lagos who reluctantly spoke briefly to  Saturday Vanguard  and who declined to give his real name, preferring simply to be called “Joe”, says he has been working at the hospital, in the placement of corpses brought to the mortuary, awaiting time for interment.
“We don’t fear the sight of corpses any longer”, he says. “We see dead bodies brought in to be kept until taken away for burial. This place (pointing to the mortuary room) is the first port of call for dead people. The death of a loved one could be very painful. It is normal for relations to express grief and sometimes shed tears. Our duty is to ensure bodies are properly kept.”
Joe explains that in some cases, the place is congested and they will have to find space for corpses. “Many families just dump bodies in the mortuary and disappear. Many people do not make adequate arrangement for preservation. It could be frightening. Many corpses are abandoned. Those who are well-to-do will give money to attendants so that the dead bodies of their loved ones won’t be neglected.“Some families are kind to us in order to make sure their deceased relatives are well treated and kept properly, awaiting burial.”He says the state of corpses depends on the gratification offered to mortuary staff by relatives of the deceased who may not want any type of decomposition. “Many people don’t have time to monitor the condition of their loved ones in mortuary, leaving them to fate”, he says.
“As a mortuary worker, I’ve seen beautiful women, handsome men, young and old, accident victims brought in. I pity their situation because they are no longer alive, but there is nothing one can do about the dead.”An attendant at the Federal Medical Centre Mortuary and Anatomical Department, Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, Mr Friday Koki, describes the job as a medical profession and that, like all other medical professions, it should be regarded as same. “What most people talk about mortuary attendants sometimes make me feel sad because it is a professional job and we serve the public,” he says.
On why he chose to work there despite other available occupations, he says he is professionally trained for the job, stating that he sees it as a calling because of his desire and passion to serve humanity, though in a different way. With over 20 years on the job, Mr. Koki declares that his family is okay with his choice of job.He says,”My family is okay with it, even my children.  Let me tell you something, my six-year-old son says he wants to become a medical doctor and I have brought him several times to the mortuary where I showed him corpses, and he was not afraid. Instead, he kept asking questions on the human anatomy.  I was amazed at his courage.”
But for Mr. Gabriel Ebikawore, a young man in his twenties, working at the mortuary was not by choice but because he was jobless. And when the opportunity came, he jumped at it, to make ends meet.“This job is a miracle for me because I never intended to work here”, he says. “A friend of mine hinted me about the job, and I said no big deal, since it is humans like me that work there. So I took the job, and for three years now I have been here.“Initially, so many persons, especially friends and relatives, were very furious about me working here because they knew me as the simple and quiet type. They told me, ‘come on, Gabriel, you shouldn’t be working in a mortuary’, and I told them that working in a mortuary is a life-changing experience because it has exposed me to many aspects of life. I learn daily here, and each day I come to work, I go home with something.”
Mr. Emeka Thompson, a owner of an undertaker outfit in Yenagoa, says he took to the job out of curiosity. “I used to wonder how it feels to be an undertaker, and I discussed it with my friend who incidentally is a coffin-maker. He was the one that suggested that I should give it a trial as it would compliment his trade. “It was not long before we became business partners as most people who come to buy coffins will need the services of undertakers and that is where I come in. I have been in this business for more than ten years,” he reveals.
On the reactions of friends and family, he says he simply told them that it is just a business, though it looks strange. “Working in the cemetery does not sound good because the person is linked with the dead, and people see us as strange and even distant themselves from us and our families”, says Malam Baba Mohammed, a local gravedigger in Birnin Kudu Local Government Area of Jigawa State. “But nevertheless, we are relevant when our services are needed at the cemetery” According to him, he inherited the work from his father whom he used to accompany to dig graves.
Source of livelihood
Many people hold mortuary attendants, undertakers and gravediggers in great awe, especially hearing them discuss the washing, embalming and dressing up of corpses for obsequies. But to most of these practitioners in the management of dead bodies, it is like any other business, a source of livelihood. For Mr. Sikiru, being an undertaker is like any other profession. “There is nothing special about it. Though people see us as extra-ordinary beings because we deal with corpses, seeing and carrying coffins everyday, as days go by, they realise that it is no big deal.”
Explaining the level of patronage the business has attracted, he says there is time and season for everything. “Sometimes, it is rosy, other times, it is hard but whatever it is, we are grateful to God. We don’t pray for people to die because it is a sin before God. We only pray to God to give us our daily bread. And we believe that in one way or the other, our bread must come. “We might be fortunate to have one or two jobs in a week or throughout the month, depending on patronage level.”
For Mr. Akinyemi, the job of an undertaker has sustained him ever since he took it up. He says: “Now, I am proud to be father and husband because I can take care of my wife and children. I provide for my family, send my children to quality school and I have set up a business for my wife through this job.” Mr. Isaac Gariaga says he was a foundation mortuary attendant at the Jeremi General Hospital, Ughelli, Delta State since it was built 17 years ago. He has been lead attendant till date, assisted by a couple of others.
On how his family members and close friends relate to his profession, Mr. Gariaga says, “There were just initially challenges when I started. Some of my immediate family members and friends saw it as odd. That challenge is no more. Everybody already knows what I do for a living and how do I really care what people say? The job puts food on my table.” As a business venture, religion is a major factor in investing in the management of corpses, especially that of an undertaker, because not only do Muslims not keep corpses, they do not bury in coffins and funeral fanfare is not for them.
 “Most of the corpses here belong to Christians”, says Mr. Nwankwo, the mortuary attendant in Kaduna.” Muslim corpses are brought here mostly after accidents, or during violence or unusual situations. But as soon as they identify and confirm their own, Muslims usually take their loved ones for burial immediately. And unlike in my state (Enugu), corpses here are not kept for long. It is rare to have the corpse of a Kaduna man or woman who was Christian, kept here for more than a month – very rare! If you see a corpse longer than that, maybe the body is an unidentified one, or it belongs to a Southerner.”
“The Muslims in Kaduna State bury their dead ones less than 20 hours after their demise, and without any form of fanfare”, says Alhaji Saidu Mato, a businessman.  “The rich and powerful and the destitute and ordinary people are all given the same rites, wrapped in the same ordinary white linen and buried six-feet down without a coffin, and the rest is between the dead and their creator. So, we don’t need undertakers and, most of the times, we don’t need to take our departed loved ones to the mortuary”, he says.  “I have never seen one of these so-called undertakers in Kaduna since I was born and raised here 54 years ago.”
Not only Muslims, but even some Christians do not fancy funeral ostentation that will entice investing in corpse management. Dr. James Kafoi Aboi, a World Health Organisation (WHO) consultant on child-mother mortality issues in Northern Nigeria, says: “When I lost my mother on Tuesday, 1st, we did her burial that weekend, Saturday, 5th. As a family, we gave her a decent burial without any undertaker and all that. We Christians from Southern Kaduna don’t attach ostentation to burials. It is too grim and solemn for that kind of show.”
For grave-diggers at Ojo cemetery in Lagos State, it is only a part time job. A young man who lives close to the cemetery tells  Saturday Vanguard  that digging graves earns him between N2,000 and N5,000 for a grave dug by two, three or four gravediggers, depending on the status of the bereaved family.But sometimes, he says, members of the bereaved family dig the grave themselves. “Even without invitation, we might join the relatives in digging the grave. We will then ask for drinks or whatever they could afford. About two or three of us are always around when a dead body is brought for burial.”
But interestingly, Mallam Mohammed, the gravedigger in Dutse, who is in his late 40s says he does not charge or ask to be paid to dig graves. When asked why, he says: “I hope that one day, God will have pity on me when I die too.” And he adds that however, “after digging a grave, family of the deceased usually give me money and at times I get up to N2,000 or even more. For me this is a humanitarian work. Sometimes we get good cash if the person who dies was from a wealth home. I am a farmer too, so I don’t survive by digging graves only.”
Some young gravediggers in Dutse, the Jigawa State capital say they dig graves voluntarily.According to them, digging grave for the dead is like spiritual exercise. “We don’t ask to be paid. We are always around Dutse.” Dutse is not like big cities like Kano or Abuja. News of death spreads easily. Once the news come, people gather to pay their last respect by joining in the mass prayer for the dead after which the dead body is taken to the cemetery and within a short time a grave is dug by the young men.
They do not see anything wrong with not wearing boots nor hand gloves. “We don’t need such things as hand gloves to dig graves”, says 23-year-old Mr. Kabiru Ali, who is the youngest gravedigger often seen around the cemetery. He says he joined the voluntary gravediggers because his friends are doing it, but confesses that at times, he really gets scared. “There are spirits of the dead moving in the grave”, he says. “I have never seen a spirit but I feel their presence at times. That is why whenever I am in the cemetery, I pray. In fact we always pray even while digging graves. It is not a work for a weak person.”

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