Become a morgue attendant? Over my dead body!

The multi-million, one storey General Kago Funeral home, named after the famed Mau Mau freedom fighter Kariuki Kago Mboko was built through Public – Private Partnership (PPP) and opened its doors in 2014.
NAIROBI, KENYA: It is one of those few, uninspiring jobs in Kenya — yet it requires little formal education.

Welcome to the dreaded world of morticians — the people who face little or no competition in the job market.

“This is one of the best careers that one can ever dream of. We ease the pain and grief of the bereaved,” says Ezra Olack while rebuffing negative perception against morticians.  

A mortician for the last 15 years, Ezra is surprised at constant mocking of a career with potential of employing hundreds of school leavers in a country staring at joblessness.

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There is demand for qualified morticians, but this critical human resource is lacking. Only a few dream of becoming morticians against the backdrop of rising number of morgues across the country.

With some of the previously conservative communities embracing morgues, the need for morticians can no longer be wished away.

The job of a mortician entails beautification of bodies before burial. But specialists in cosmetology, thanatology or embalming are difficult to find.

According to Ezra who doubles up as Funeral Services Association of Kenya (FUSAK) national chairman, there is a shortfall of 500 morticians. Lack of regulation and professionalism is cited as the reason for disinterest in the job.

It is estimated that about 200,000 people die annually, according to information from the department of civil registration. A significant number of them are preserved in morgues.

The 2014-2018 Human Resources Strategy by ministry of health shows that 173,912 people died in 2012 with Nyanza leading with 29,294 deaths followed by Western (25,967), Eastern (24,909), Central (24,351), Nairobi (19,832), South Rift (19,214), Coast (15,162), North Rift (13,188) and North Eastern (1,995).

Pneumonia was the biggest killer with 19,011 succumbing to the disease. Malaria come second with 18,746 deaths, cancer (11,863), AIDs (9,436), tuberculosis (9,236), anaemia (6,931), heart diseases (5,492), road accidents (4,457) and meningitis (3,968).

Ezra says due to lack of or inadequate training, morticians are vulnerable to infectious diseases, which can be spread to family members, friends and community.

The work of mortuary attendants revolves around collecting and transporting bodies from the wards to the mortuary, taking note of and recording the time  of  death  and  the  time  the  body  is taken  to  the mortuary.  They then either prepare and store bodies in the fridge or take them for postmortem during which they assist pathologists to carry out autopsies. They finally hand over bodies for disposal, burial or cremation.

The fear of coming into close contact with corpses makes the job of a mortician the least attractive, unlike other professions where there is fierce competition.

Potential job seekers shun morgues because of stigma and ridicule surrounding the occupation.

Equally amused at the state of affairs is professor Collins Ouma.  The don says morale boosting for morticians is necessary. A research he supervised established deplorable working conditions for the few mortuary attendants.

They had no gloves, gumboots, masks and other protective gear, according to the Maseno University lecturer. While faulting policy makers for failing to convert research findings into plans of action, he says the job is less alluring due to cultural beliefs.

“People fear the dead. For instance, the Luo believe that once someone has died, their spirit hovers around. The spirit is thought to be powerful and that is why the dead are avoided. You don’t want to annoy the spirit,” explains the biomedical scientist.

Upset at the way the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) rape saga was handle, Ezra is against the emerging trend of using morticians as a scapegoat to cover weakness.

Morgue attendants at Kenya’s largest referral hospital were accused of raping lactating mothers. The accusations, according to the FUSAK chair, added salt to injury, coming almost a month after National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) director general, Francis Meja, threatened to send traffic offenders to work in morgues as a form of punishment.

“Morticians are normal human beings plying their trade like everybody else. For you to work, you must have passion and motivation,” says Ezra.

Head of department of Human Anatomy at University of Nairobi, professor Peter Gichangi says the evolution of the funeral industry is tied to economic growth.  The establishment of more morgues is a manifestation of improved financial status and abandonment of retrogressive practices.

In the past his department has trained about 300 morticians and plans are underway to introduce a diploma course in mortuary science that will eventually be taught at degree level.

“At the moment the low cadre job (mortician) is not being taken seriously but when institutions start providing needed skills, the government will recognise them as professionals,” observes Gichangi.

Like his counterpart at Maseno, Gichangi says the awful working environment and cultural beliefs associated with death are the main factors contributing to neglect of the welfare of morticians.  

“It is true the funeral industry is growing, we need to realign ourselves and support it in terms of producing skilled labour. In the past, morgues were not places one would like to visit due to the mess, but this is changing and not long from now, professionals will comfortably work there,” argues the don. If fully professionalised, the morgues can as well attract grief counsellors, restorative artists, funeral consultants and funeral planers.

“We eke out a living professionally, I don’t understand why the society is usually scornful about us,” decries Ezra.

So far there are less than 200 qualified morticians across the country. FUSAK has in the past complained of bodies being handled by quacks.  

On average a mortician takes home between Sh 10, 000 and Sh 11,000. Ezra wants a basic pay of Sh 30,000 every month with additional transport, house, and risk allowances.

He feels better pay, regulation and professionalisation will lead to improved standards and minimal theft cases of body parts, fluids and chemicals.

“This is an area within the medical practice that has been neglected throughout. We don’t know whether we are clinicians, laboratory technicians, nurses or doctors,” observes Ezra.

Among the Luhya, Luo and Kalenjin communities, it was rare for bodies to be preserved in morgues. The practice is now common in villages.

“There are morgues spread all over the country due to demand. But the biggest challenge we face is lack of minimum qualification of those employed,” says Ezra.

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