Ann Wanjiku Njoki is a girly girl, she likes make-up, hairstyling, and all things beauty. But her career of choice is nothing pink or roses, instead - she is surrounded by death, grief and empathy at work. The 26-year-old is a mortician by profession. Her job entails attending to the deceased and preparing them for a befitting send-off.
The mortuary attendant shares some of her experiences on her popular TikTok account, @annmwangangi2019, where she has over 275,000 followers and more than four million likes. She is based at St Benedict the 16th Hospital in Nyahururu.
“I usually wake up at 6.30 am to prepare myself. I am supposed to be at work by 7.45 am. Handing over is done to check how things have faired overnight. I work at the hospital. Sometimes we lose people at night and if that happens, I move the body to the morgue,” says Ann.
“After that, we release the people that are supposed to go to burial that same day. In the morning we do the touch-up, like make-up and wrapping up turbans as far as religious beliefs are concerned,” she says.
The mortician says she attends to at least three dead people a day. Ann says she got into this line of work because of experiences and circumstances.
It all started with the unfortunate death of her mother when she was just 16 years old and in Form Two. Her mother’s death left her and her then-six-year-old brother orphaned.
DEATH AND DENIAL
“When my mum died, I was not okay, so I switched schools to a day school near where my grandmother stayed. One of the most difficult moments in my life was accepting what had happened. When she died, I was in denial. I thought that she would come back eventually,” she says.
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“Then days passed and I realised that she was not coming back; for me to accept that fact, I struggled before I got there.”
The content creator says her experience with the loss of a close loved one opened her eyes to the process of grief, and how much those who are grieving need love and support.
“People usually think that things are finished when the burial is done, but that is when the grieving family begins to feel the gap. During burial preparations, your cousins are there, and other relatives, the house is full. But when they leave, the emptiness is felt.”
Helping raise her brother kept Ann mentally afloat as she was determined to be there for him.
“My brother was my biggest motivator. I had the chance of knowing my mum for 16 years, he did not have that chance. He is the one who made me get up and pull myself together.”
Years later, Ann came face to face with grief again, but this time, she had lost a friend. Her experience with a rude mortuary attendant gave her the final push she needed to pursue the career, in the hope of giving grieving families a better, more compassionate encounter.
“He (the morgue attendant) was not so happy to see us, but I think there was a language we couldn’t speak. So I remember my friends tipped him, which turned him into a renewed, friendly person,” Ann says.
She adds: “I think people should tip you for a service rendered as a token of appreciation. It felt like a bribe for you to do what you are paid to do. This is grief and pain, not celebration.”
The more she thought about the career, the more she wanted to do it. That was when she informed her uncle, who was shocked, at first, but supported her.
“At first he did not understand. He told me to take two months to do something else as I thought twice about what he was saying. At that time, I had taken up cosmetology; hairdressing and make-up. After those two months, he asked me if I still felt the same way and I confirmed that I was sure I wanted to be a mortician,” Ann says. That was in 2017.
“When I lost my mum, I wish I had someone tell me that it is okay to go view her body as much as I needed for closure. Burial is so busy that loved ones do not have enough time to properly see their loved ones. If only someone had told me that it is okay to see her, that would have helped,” Ann says.
She adds: “That is why I champion what I am doing right now. For you to get closure, it is not a one-day event. Come and see your mum, your dad or your loved one, and make it easier on yourself during the burial - so that you do not break down at that point.”
The mortician explains that getting into the industry was not easy. She began by joining a training programme and notes that she lost a lot of weight during her training as working with bodies affected her appetite.
“I was so fortunate that immediately after my training, I got an internship and soon after secured a good job,” Ann says.
Ann hopes to raise awareness about her career and address misconceptions and scepticism about what she does.
“I feel that people fear what they do not know. That is why I appreciate it when we create awareness about death and grief. When you go by what you have heard, it becomes twisted. You hear all sorts of rumours that morticians get by using alcohol and drugs. It is easy to judge from a perspective or ignorance,” she says.
“Acceptance is on the rise, but scepticism is also there,” adds Ann.
The mortician says that giving a hundred per cent in the work that she does gives her fulfilment.
“I have received a lot of love from the loved ones of those who I serve. It gives me a lot of satisfaction. I have found my purpose in life.”