The intermittent movement of corpses stretchered into and out of the morgue, the uncontrollable wailing, weeping and the mournful looks from bereaved families, friends and emotive passers-by, are enough signals to remind those around the mortuary vicinity that they are at the meeting point between the dead and living.
Whether the corpses are just from the hospital, due to several weeks, months and or years of bedridden illnesses, or accidents like domestic, auto, gunshot and many more, the effects and painful feelings of watching loved ones headed to the morgue, the temporal resting place for the departed, remain the same.
Irrespective of the love and closeness, no human feels comfortable staying with a dead relative or friend. The mortuary always marks the beginning of the point of separation between the hitherto loved ones. Funeral home, a transit stopgap; remains the hedge between the living and dead.
At the receiving end of such final home journey for the dead are professionals variously called morticians and/or embalmers. They are in charge of handling, preserving and releasing the corpses to the bereaved for final funeral journey to the great beyond.
They are men that have immunised themselves so much that seeing and touching corpses don’t matter anything to them. They sleep and wake up with corpses; they eat and drink with corpses. Some of them even got married and catered for their families through the proceeds of handling and preserving corpses.
The morticians have conquered the psychological fears and mysticism associated with the dead especially in developing countries. They would logically and boldly announce that there is nothing to fear because they are not the first to see the corpses.
A mortician at the National Hospital, Abuja, Simeon Diondou (not real name), told Daily Sun: “Someone must have seen the corpse before bringing it to us. We always tell people that the work of morticians is basically helping the helpless.
“I have been a mortician in the past 15 years. I was employed in 2004. Handling the corpses has become a career, a profession to me. Don’t forget that the death did not occur in this mortuary. Whoever thinks I should feel somehow, should understand that someone else touched the corpse before it got to me.
“So since nobody died in the mortuary, my responsibility as a mortician is to help a helpless body. People always desert the corpse like it is no longer part of them and abandon them to us, like an animal, to do whatever we wish. If corpses scare morticians, who then will help the dead continue their imminent journey to eternity?
“When I had not started this job, I was allergic to seeing corpse. Even when I started this job, I did not know that I would become used to it like this. I had to overcome the fear, when I resolved that it was just a way of helping the helpless.
“I can’t even remember the number of corpses I have handled or see them in my dream or at home. I remember the pains, sorrows and tears of the deceased relatives more than the corpses. Initially, I was usually emotionally moved to tears by the bereaved relatives, but age, maturity, experience and too much exposure to the corpse have hardened me that I no longer shed tears.
“My commitment as far as this job is concerned, is how to handle the corpses, preserve and deliver them in an acceptable state to their loved ones for burial. I have become so immune about fear of corpse. At worst, it only constantly reminds me that I will be like it one day.”
Motivation for the job
For many, it could only be economic benefit for morticians to be comfortable with the corpses that scare even their loved ones. But to many of them, it was just passion and joblessness that forced them into it.
Diondou: “I actually applied for the job in 2004. A bank had earlier issued me employment letter, but somewhere along the line, recapitalisation exercise denied me the job. I hopelessly took up teaching job and taught for about seven months before the opportunity to become a mortician fell on my laps.
“Initially, I accepted the offer because of lack of job, but, after growing on it, I can tell you that I have forgotten about every other job. I am no longer thinking of working in the bank again because as a mortician, I am earning the salary I was looking for as a banker.”
Superstition about the morgue
For most adults especially in the rural areas, there have been several mysticisms and superstitions built around the dead and the mortuary. They range from knocking on the door before entering the morgue and pacifying a stubborn corpse to emboweling the body during embalmment.
Another mortician at the hospital, Danladi Elijah (not real name), said: “It would be a surprise if you have not raised the issue of mysticisms surrounding the corpse. There have been such beliefs as corpses moving, morticians talking to the spirit of the dead to control it, knocking on the doors before entering the morgue among others, but they are all lies and superstition.
“In my over one decade of handling corpse, I can confirm that it is practically impossible for the dead to wake up or move. Once someone is confirmed brain dead, it is a final journey to eternity. Since I started this job, we have never recorded any incident of a dead person waking up or the spirit of the dead to move.
“Whatever anybody tells you about those beliefs, regard them as tissues of lies and the antics of the morticians especially those in private mortuaries. They use those things to exploit the bereaved. They also use those mythical stories to scare some people from joining the job. Don’t forget that young people don’t take up this job in the past. Morticians then were mostly job for old people almost close to their graves.
“They created those mythical tales to underscore the relevance of their job and scare young persons from joining the job. In fact, such myths have become instrument of exploitation for the young men into the job now.”
Beyond the horror of handling the dead, morticians encounter series of challenges especially the hazardous exposure to chemical used in preserving the corpses. Elijah:
“The difficulties we encounter on this job are mostly handling infectious corpses, which requires extreme care. Another one we consider very difficult is the exposure to the offensive and hazardous chemical we use to preserve the corpses.
“Again, touching the corpses reminds us that one day we will also be like them. Contrary to the belief that embalmment is the most difficult part of our job, science has simplified it to the way a sick person takes drip. We put drip on their femur.
“Before now, the perception is that embalmment requires emboweling the corpse, but this is far from it. Where will we keep whatever we remove from the corpses if they claim we embowel the body?”
Asked if he would allow his wife know the job he does, the mortician replied: “To avoid my would-be wife then hearing negative stories from other sources, I took her to my office inside the mortuary to inform her that I am a mortician.
“Although she did not tell me her feelings, however, since she did not discontinue the marriage, I concluded that she is comfortable with my job. I cannot tell you how my children are feeling because they are still young to understand the nature of my job.”
Is he planning to leave the job soon, Elijah responded: “If God wants to take me higher than this, I will appreciate it, but working as a mortician has made me to forget about banking or teaching jobs.”
Sharp practices at Gudu Cemetery
Activities at the Gudu Cemetery, Abuja, show that the dead were not respected. All manners of business transactions, sharp deals, fetishism and ritualism are perpetrated. Summing up the shoddy activities going on inside the cemetery, one Moses, gulping his hot alcoholic drink spoke with Daily Sun: “Wealth is inside the graveyard.
“Whatever you want, you can get it here. Just tell us and you consider it done. We are here for people like you. We take care of the digging and even the undertakers. We have Christian side, Muslim side and the Indian side where they burn the corpses. I will make sure everything works out peacefully for you.”
Asked how he feels sleeping in the graveyard, he thundered: “Watin concern me, am I the person that killed those buried here. People must continue to die. My mission here is to make money anyhow. I must meet my target here. See, there is so much money in the graveyard and we will do everything to survive here.”
And to prove his readiness for business, he accepted to smoothen the request by our correspondent for a midnight prayer session inside the cemetery even as he tactically refused to make any financial commitment.
“You want to pray inside the graveyard?” he asked without showing any surprise. “Do you want to bury anything or take anything from the grave? Is it only prayer, so that I know what I will tell my boys? Let me, however, advice that whatever you want to do, you have to be very careful about it.
“I don’t want you to run into any form of problem. Police patrol here from time to time and I don’t want you to get me involved. I don’t even know you and I hope it is not a risk I am taking talking to you.” Moses refused to go further.
Corroborating the nocturnal clandestine activities, Ibrahim Dole (he refused to disclose real name), a member of the management of Kuje Muslim Cemetery told our correspondent that they have been battling to checkmate the activities of ritualists invading the cemetery to exhume corpses for certain human parts.
“It is even good that you are there,” he told Daily Sun on telephone: “You will help us publicise the situation we are facing there. The biggest challenge confronting the cemetery has been the attacks from rituals that disguised as robbers.
“That was the situation of things going on at the cemetery. We have reported the incident to the police, but it continued until we decided to source for money and employ ‘maiguard’ and armed them with bow and arrow to guard the cemetery. We cannot understand why they chose that cemetery to perpetrate their evil activities.”