Many people get goose bumps all over when the word "mortuary" is mentioned.
It has an aura of awe about it. Nobody wears a smile when they enter the mortuary. Either the visitor is already crying, is about to break out into a paroxysm of tears, or is feeling reflective, sorry for themselves, and nervous.
A mortuary is similar to a small cemetery. In actuality, it serves as a holding area for the deceased before they make their last journey to the cemetery, where they are buried and given to Mother Earth. It is a location where, on an esoteric level, the forces of the spiritual and physical interact.
Every hospital's mortuary department is expected to display a warning sign. The atmosphere is always incredibly silent, depressing, awful, and cold. The air is filled with a dirge that serves as a brief reminder of the impermanence of life and the vainness of all human endeavors and material possessions.
A visit to any mortuary will show a critical observer four different types of people present in the enclave in addition to the deceased. Those who are there to place dead bodies are the first group of people. There are also those who have gone there to claim the already-deposited bodies for burial. Yet, there are others who just go there to experience what happens at the mortuary, and then the last group of people are the workers—the mortuary attendants.
However, the outlook at the Isolo General Hospital Mortuary in Lagos is not different.
The Daily Post reporter who was there last week experienced firsthand the awful, horrible, and educational events as they unfolded.
As soon as you get into the General Hospital, you will see a sign post with an arrow directing you to the mortuary unit on the right-hand side. It is a modest bungalow, though, with a rough, rusted roofing sheet beside the three-story Mother and Child Center.
Just as you take a turn to your right, your nostrils will inform you that the land of the dead is close by. The putrefying odor within the vicinity would invade your olfactory lobes, an indication that you are correctly following the directional sign. The question you would ask yourself immediately is: Why the stinking odor? But, determined to get to the mortuary unit, our Correspondent defied the malodorous smell and descended to a point where he joined other people who ostensibly were there for the body of their sister lying cold in the mortuary.
From that vantage point, our correspondent monitored the events of the day. After observing what was happening from afar, he braved all odds and went beyond that point, moving straight into the mortuary, where the embalmed corpses were arranged in rows waiting to be claimed. On getting to the point, the attendants wearing boots and hand gloves accosted our reporter, who quickly told them that he was searching for one of his friends who had been missing for over two weeks.
With that excuse, he was promptly led into the section where all the corpses deposited in the last two weeks were kept. After examining the corpses, our reporter pretended not to have seen his friend but to have seen life in its naked form. Inside the room were dead bodies in various forms, placed on wooden planks and lined up on the floor, waiting to be claimed and evacuated for burial.
Interestingly, those who go to deposit, as well as those who go there to take away the already deposited bodies, display various behaviors depending on their composition. When women are in the midst, the story is always different. Some of them would start wailing and rolling on the ground right from the entrance gate down to the mortuary unit. Some would be sobbing deeply. Some would just be singing a dirge, while others would either cross their hands on their chests or across their heads, wearing very long faces.
Yet, there are those who would be running up and down to ensure that the signing and endorsement of the necessary papers are completed to either deposit or take away corpses. Checks revealed that before a corpse is deposited, clearance would have to be obtained from the emergency unit before the mortuary attendants would accept the body. When you go there to take away a corpse, the authorities need to ensure that you have paid your entire bill before the corpse is released to you. In other words, you must present receipts to prove that the dead body belongs to you and that you have cleared all outstanding debts before it is released to you.
Surprisingly, as every other person who found himself or herself in the vicinity wore one kind of mournful look or another, depicted in various forms, the mortuary attendants giggled as they bantered and cracked jokes. Not minding the offensive odor oozing out, some of them were busy gulping bottles of beer and burning sticks of cigarettes, just as others gormandized plates of eba with ewedu soup. Yet others had a field day with ‘Agege bread’ and bottles of mineral water. To them, the environment was very serene and clement. There was nothing strange about the environment, and even if there was, life must go on.
For a first-timer, so many questions would agitate his mind, particularly pertaining to the way the attendants carry on with life. For example, don’t they feel sober or even afraid of cohabiting with the dead?
But, reacting to the near-Spartan nature of the attendants, who, despite the offensive odor at the place, still eat, drink, smoke, and crack jokes freely, one of the security guards said: “Their nostrils are already used to the odor. It has become part of them because they live there; I mean, they sleep and wake up there. So, it is only visitors like you who will not be comfortable with the odor.
“Besides, they are doing their work, and they make their cash from there, so they would endure whatever offensive odor, as you put it. But remember that what you perceive are mainly the chemicals they use on our bodies. And as for them being afraid of the dead, my brother, this job is not for lily-livered souls. It takes a lot of courage and guts to do the job.”
Pregnant mothers who attended the antenatal care also got enough doses of the odor as it intermittently pervaded the entire maternity wards and even up to the outpatient wards. People were seen clutching handkerchiefs over their noses; some used small hand towels to cover their noses, while others fought the offensive odor by frowning and squeezing their faces.
At one moment, you would see people coming into the hospital with smiles and laughter as they discussed, but as soon as the mortuary breeze blazed through their noses, their mien would change, and their hitherto smiling faces would turn bony and rocky, with none willing to utter a word again. They would hurry to wherever they were going just to escape the putrid odor.
Asked if the odor is a continuous thing, the guard said, “No, it’s just that the mortuary is filled up now. You know that the corpses of armed robbers and beggars who die along the roadside are equally brought in by the police and are all deposited here. They are normally given a mass burial, but that is only done when the state government gives such orders.
“As it is now, they are still waiting for instructions from the government before they can give mass burial to those kinds of corpses. Once and when that is done, the smell will disappear.”
At the last count, no fewer than four corpses had been brought in and deposited. The corpses are conveyed to the mortuary by all kinds of vehicles, ranging from Danfo buses, Volkswagen Golf cars, and Mazda mini trucks to posh, flashy cars such as Mercedes-Benz and Toyota cars, depending on who is involved.
And when they get there, the vehicles would be driven with the boot almost into the mortuary entrance door, so that evacuation would be easier and to accord a little respect to the dead, as most of them are brought in a condition too horrible to behold. Then, about three attendants wearing boots and hand gloves would emerge from the inside and take delivery of the new corpse. They would immediately get to work.
When our reporter sought to know the average number of corpses that are deposited on a daily basis, an attendant who would not want his name in print insisted that it was difficult to give such a figure because sometimes policemen would bring in more than five bodies of armed robbers killed during an exchange of gun battles.
“You can’t determine the number because police can just come in any time with about five or more bodies of armed robbers. They could also come in with recovered bodies of accident victims or even all these mad people that die on the roadside. And nobody knows when they will come with such dead bodies. So, it becomes very difficult to say that this is the number of corpses that are deposited here in a day. We can’t even hazard a rough estimate,” he submitted.
When asked to narrate some of his experiences as a mortuary attendant, he declined further comment.
He referred our reporter to the medical director, who he said was the only person to give them instructions to speak on that.
He even regretted having spoken in the first instance and pleaded with our reporter to spare him and his job by not mentioning his name in any way.
Checks also revealed that corpses that are brought in by relatives are kept separate from those brought in by the police. While the ones brought in by relatives and friends are properly kept on wooden planks and lined up on the floor, the ones brought in by the police, especially those of the armed robbers, are packed in a wooden cabin and placed on the floor.
However, stationed in front of the mortuary building are the Lagos State Ministry of Health Mortuary vans and many other vehicles serving as private ambulances.
An investigation revealed that the mortuary vans are usually used to evacuate corpses for mass burial by the state government. But the other ambulances are owned by individuals who have organized themselves into a union. They park their vehicles waiting for people who would hire them to convey corpses to wherever, only if the hirer can afford their charges.
Those who are not members of the union are not allowed to park their ambulances on the premises. People who do not want to patronize them are free to hire an ambulance from outside. Within the two horrible days that our reporter took to monitor activities there, about 10 corpses were taken away from the mortuary.
It was also discovered that those who are there to take their relatives away have a different attitude than those who are there to deposit. Normally, those who had gone there to collect looked sober, with gloomy and cloudy eyes, fighting back tears, at least until they got to the burial site. But the ones who had gone to deposit bodies looked tired, dejected, and worn out, with red eyes, an indication that they just cried their eyes out before heading to the mortuary.