Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Careers in the Room of Death

By Caroline Nyanga
April 12th 2016

When we think of a mortician, we often think of a strange old man with peculiar habits and with very few friends. It’s a career very few men would dare into leave alone women.
But 22-year-old Hannah Wambui Muthana and 30-year-old Sarah Nyambura Wangui have defied all societal norms to venture into the world of the dead. In the course of their work they are surrounded by the dead more than the the living.The two are morticians attached to the Chiromo Funeral Parlour in Nairobi. Unlike Hanna who ventured into the profession as a second option and out of curiosity, Sarah says embalming and beautifying the dead was her career choice “from day one”.
Inspired into the profession by a friend at the age of 25, Sarah often frequented Nyeri Provincial General Hospital and Tumutumu in Karatina, Mathera, just to familiarise herself with the activities that went on there.
“I recall going there more than 20 times. During each visit, the mortuary attendant would take me inside the morgue, which was filled with bodies placed in the cold rooms, on embalming tables and the floor,” she says.
Hannah, on the other hand, says that misconceptions about the profession and the dead is what inspired her to be a mortician.
“At first, I wanted to pursue a degree in journalism, but owing to lack of fees, I opted for a diploma in Information Technology at Nairobi Institute of Business Studies for six months. But I soon quit to do a certificate course in Mortuary Science at Chiromo Campus, University of Nairobi,” says Hannah.The two have been embalming and beautifying bodies at Chiromo for two years. They say making sure a body looks decent before burial is their business.
“Although we are well aware that our career choice are sneered by many, it is something we are proud of, cherish and have a great passion for,” they say, adding that a world without morticians would be messy.
Sarah and Hannah, who have been on training at Chiromo for two years say that contrary to the belief that a mortician and a mortuary attendant are the same, the two are completely different professions.
“Unlike a mortuary attendant who looks after, washes, dresses bodies and guides relatives in identifying their loved ones, a mortician treats bodies to ensure that they are well-preserved and decent for burial,” they explain.
The two say their work involves undressing the corpse, disinfecting, embalming, evisceration (removal of internal organs for diagnosis), draining of the fluids and blood, assisting in postmortem and stitching before the body is finally stored in the freezer.

Other procedures involve encoffing (putting final touches on the body by dressing and stuffing it in the coffin) before doing the final presentation popularly known as cosmetology. The latter is beautification of the body which is done only according to the family’s specifications.
Despite immense support from their families and friends, they say there is still a lot of misconception about the profession.Sarah says: “We all know that talking about death is difficult. It is high time we changed how we think about the death of our loved ones as we equally prepare for our own.”
Asked about the emotional impact of working on bodies, they say they are used to it.
“I don’t mean to be callous, but it becomes a reality of your workplace, knowing that you are dealing with a corpse. We are all mortal,” says Sarah.
“I strongly believe that it is God who protects us. The only difference between the living and the dead is that the latter are lifeless,” Sarah adds.
“After all it is easier to be infected by a living person than the dead,” adds Hanna who share they hardly have nightmares.
The most challenging part of their work is reconstructing damaged bodies. But despite this they say they can look at a person’s picture before death and reconstruct the damaged part to its former appearance.“Some families request that we remove braids or weaves. In such cases we must do so before the body is taken for embalming,” says Sarah.
They say that there are occasions when make-up is applied on the dead upon request by the family members.
“We do this after the body has been dressed and put in the coffin so as to maintain the make-up,” says Sarah.
There is no minimum number of bodies in a day. On a busy day they can work on even more than 20 bodies in a day. For example, last April, they handled more than 40 decomposed bodies from Garissa University College, Garissa, which were transported in late and successfully managed to complete the entire process on all bodies in less than 12 hours – taking into consideration that they were only four morticians.
Their last advice is for people to strive to live in harmony with one another besides thanking God for a new day.
“Death is an inevitable transition that we all fear but we can’t help but talk about it openly besides preparing ourselves for it,” they say.
Both of them were trained by Chebi Enos Subisiso, a 26-year-old mortician who has been working at the Chiromo Funeral Parlour for four years.He says young people are beginning to embrace the profession since it is marketable and not a crowded field.
He says he has trained more than 70 morticians since 2013.


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