In a society like Nigeria, being a mortuary attendant is a great sin; enough reason for one’s choice of damsel to quit a thriving relationship and reject marriage proposal at the mention of mortuary attendant, since many morticians are seen as living ghost, who dine and wine with the dead. CHIJIOKE IREMEKA reports of his experiences with the dead
The mind became a seat of unpardonable debates and the conclusion was this is a home of the dead, a place where beautiful women and handsome men no longer feel ashamed to welcome their visitors while Unclad. Some were fresh while others were dry like stockfish. Some of them came in gorgeously dressed but end up being Unclad without being ashamed of who sees their ‘privaties.’
These are the same ‘privaties’ they had covered and protected with every vigour but cannot fight for them again. Upon entrance to the morgue, Sunday Telegraph expected the ‘flatmates’ to rise and cover themselves as visitors were coming, but none of the ‘flatmates’ could do that. Those with small wrappers on their cold bodies could not also adjust themselves to cover their unclothedness.
More still, pains are no more; they do not feel pains anymore even as the morticians threw them like a log on the floor or upon others. They were not being pitied for, neither were the ladies treated like ladies and the men treated like kings in their palaces. In this realm, every ‘flatemate’ is equal before the other. Male’s room is not separated from that of the female, and there is no male or female toilet as the case may be. “Don’t you have respect for my body” is long thrown overboard as the only thing to distinguish a male from a female is their private parts.
They can’t answer their names anymore; they can only be identified with the help of tally, hence, the mortuary attendants have a great duty of carefulness not to miss tag anybody. Bringing out a tally, with which to identify my father’s body, and seeing number 243, got the correspondent wondering how many bodies were waiting final departure to be committed to the mother earth.
I saw my father, called on him, but he wouldn’t respond, I touched him, but he didn’t wake up, rather I felt sort of cold sensation. I spoke he didn’t speak back. At this point, it dawned on the Correspondent that life has gone, the spirit has gone, soul has left the body empty, and the body on its own, waiting to return to the dust where it came from. This is the fulfillment of the Scripture; the path of every mortal.
The life reality overwhelmed. On regular basis more bodies were being deposited in the morgue, which meant more money for the morticians, yet the attendants were not happy making much money and find it most difficult getting life partners to spend their money with.
The mortuary attendants face great stigmatisation in the society and as a result, many women do not want to marry them despite their money and handsomeness. Those who reject them still can’t do without them when a loved one drops dead and needs to be taken care of. Their profession is like a necessary evil which is appreciated at a point.
Obong John, a mortuary attendant at Iyi- Enu General Hospital is one of such people suffering from marriage rejections, relationships break up and societal stigmatization for choosing that part of profession. He said: “I lost relationships because of my profession. I lost two fiancées because I told them the truth about what I do for a living. No woman will be pleased to marry a man like us except she is not with her right senses.”
Obong is speaking of high stigma mortuary attendants and by extension, trained pathologists face in the society due to their chosen profession. He is one of those who have lost thriving relationships due to the profession. Forty-two-year-old Calabar-born Obong, could not get married to his choice lady for many years when his mates where getting married despite his financial stability.
He said: “I took my wife unawares and by the time she knew it, it was too late for her to go back; she was already pregnant of my twin boys but it wasn’t easy convincing her to stay. I thought I had lost her as usual. As at 43, I was still looking for who will accept me, but naturally I didn’t find anybody.
“Many people, especially women feel that we have a lot to do with the dead and sometimes feel we are spirits and not normal persons. The last woman I lost asked how was she to live with a man who goes out every time to dress dead people with his hand and come back to touch her with the same hand.” He noted that when a lady starts discussing with him and gets to know that he is a mortuary attendant, her emotion and passion will enter reverse gear, saying that such a lady will manage to leave that day and never returns.
He continued: “This was what I suffered for years before I decided not to tell my wife what I do until I impregnated her. It is a major problem for us. Nobody in the society wants to relate with us even the few ones that do, will not want to eat with us on the same plate.
“My wife does not eat swallow with me on the same plate because of my job. Touching her is yet another problem. It’s painful but there is nothing I can do. Some people will not want to sit near us. They feel that we are corpses too. Those that will sit with you will hold their breath as if we smell. In fact, this is the reason we hardly tell people what we do except they discover it themselves.
“Initially, for my wife to make love to me, she has to be drunk in order not to think about it or feel that she was making love to a corpse or being touched with the same hands with which I dress dead bodies. But she is getting better now but I know she is not free from her feelings yet.”
According to another mortician, Vincent Adibe from Aguleri, who confirmed the societal stigmatisation of the job, morticians are seen as abnormal people and at the same time, not respected in the society. He noted that when list of highly placed professions are mentioned in the society, nobody mentions mortuary attendants save for trained pathologists which are mentioned with great trepidation.
He said: “In some cases, you will be coming to fetch water from the tap and people will be running away from you; they give way and allow you to fetch and go before they could fetch theirs. Some of them give us a lot of allowance when they see you on the road.
“Seeing us at lonely place at night or early hours of the day is like one has seen a ghost but there is nothing to do, this is what my father taught me and transferred to me. My father used to be a traditionalist, so he trained me in his line of profession when I was in secondary school.
“He used to preserve corpses for people in the village with local dry gin (sapele water) until the bodies are to be buried. So with a time, he was employed by a hospital to manage their dead until it became something he did as profession.
He trained us with the proceeds from it and I felt one can equally make money from it. “I didn’t have problem with my wife because I married a traditionalist too who understands the things of the spirit. She is a perfect blend. She helps me a lot. It was part of what my father asked me to do so that I will not have problems getting married.
So I went for a traditional woman. My father had to charm a lady to marry her.” Sunday Telegraph learnt that some ritualists attendants make money from the human parts to sell to those need them; hence the need to ensure that the parts of the corpses brought to the morgues, especially private parts intact.
One of the ways to ensure this does not happen is by instructing the attendants to open the mouth of your loved one to sure that the tongue is still there or uncover the body for you to see that the private parts are intact or the eyes, the ears and examine the body whether there is a cut which will suggest that some internal organs like the heart and others have been removed.
Asked why they check the mouth of the dead, Edafe Efekodo, said for ritualist morticians, they sell parts. “So when you visit and demand to see the private part of the dead, they will open his mouth, private part, tongues and others to confirm these.
“We act on your instructions, so attendants will respond to your requests. But selling of parts is not done in a big hospital like this but mainly in the private morgues if you are not careful.”
Mr. Alhassan Azaah, who has over 11 years of work experience as a ‘mortuary man,’ said his life is marred by stigma. Setting out in life, he never dreamt of becoming a mortuary attendant although he was one of the best undertakers in his village. But life, with its twist and turns, offered him an opportunity to serve humanity as a mortuary attendant, so he gracefully woke up to the call, since it was going to put food on the table.
Alhassan recalls he chanced on an announcement of vacancy at the hospital, and knowing how prestigious it was to be working as a health worker; he put his documents together and applied for the job. “Will you agree to do any work here at the hospital if you are picked to work here?” was the only question he recalls he was asked during the interview session and in answering affirmative, he was asked to go and wait for the response. After several weeks of waiting, Alhassan received the all-important call notifying him of his appointment as a mortuary man.
Although it was a relieving call, he had to think through with some close relatives and out of four people whose opinions he sought; three were in support of his new appointment, hence taking up the responsibility. Although things did not turn out to be what he envisaged, he worked hard for the love for humanity as a casual worker for four years with a meagre salary.
“I worked for four years as a casual worker. I think I started working in 2006 and I worked for four years without a better salary but I was happy to be working for humanity so I continuously was committed to my work until I had my full time appointment,” he said.
He continued: “Me I no get juju. It is God who protects me. All that an individual needs is courage and the protection from the Most High God.” Recounting his numerous spiritual encounters with a dead bodies, he said: “One day, someone died and I had to collect the body from the hospital and prepare it for the morgue.
This individual died out of a spiritual battle, so when I carried it from the hospital and got to the morgue, he (corpse) put off all the lights in the morgue. “I was the only one by then, so I gather courage and shout at him to put the light on and he did and I prepared it there.
But the greatest embarrassment I have faced was the day I went to the bank to take his salary. On my arrival, I met one nurse in the bank, who what is the mortuary man doing in the bank?” He noted that all eyes were on him and so to avoid further embarrassment he decided to leave the bank but was prevailed upon and was served by one of the tellers and that has been the order since that day. In recounting this, a teary Alhassan mentioned that he had gone through several embarrassing situations in his life but that scene at the bank was the most embarrassing day of his life.
Sharing her experiences, Julie, who has a pathologist as a friend, said: “I met one pathologist, and we got on talking. When I discovered that he is a pathologist, I was a bit scared and cautious and so didn’t allow physical contact. “He trained in France and almost lost his African identity due to his long stay over there. He is fond of giving friends pecks.
One day, we were discussing and the next thing heard was a peck on the cheek. That day I felt something unusual and cold sensation on my cheek. Goose pimples were all over my body. It looks as if a corpse had touched me.
“In fact, we went for meal but I technically avoided eating together with him. I had to change my order. In one occasion, I placed my order and when his was brought in; I decided to change mine just to ensure I didn’t eat the same thing with him.
So that discrimination was there, but most time it is a thing of psychology. Asked how he relates with his wife, he said, “Well, this over 20 years marriage, so my wife has moved on. She is now familiar with my profession but I know she is nursing some funny in her my mind about me. She felt the same way you are feeling initially.”
In another development, a young lady was asked by Sunday Telegraph whether she would like to marry a rich mortician, but she said marrying a mortuary attendant will be tantamount to living the rest of her life with fear and depression, hence there is no need for doing that. “How will I tell my mother, friends and kinsmen that I am getting married to a mortician? God forbid. My family will disown me. I will be feeling that I am with a corpse in the house.
It’s not easy don’t go there at all,” said Chinyere Mbachu, a single girl believing God for marriage. “No matter how desperate I am, it has not got to the point of tying the knots with a mortician, mortuary attendant, who eats and start his day with dead people.
In fact, look at me and see the goose pimples all over by body. It’s not possible. I am not saying that they are not humans, but there other women who will marry them but I am not one of them. Thank you,” she added.