She is warm, soft-spoken and friendly; traits that many don’t associate with mortuary attendants.
“Karibuni sana,” she says with a mile-wide smile as she welcomes us to her home in Ruaka, Kiambu County.
Catherine Njenga is a teacher by profession, but a mortician by passion. She taught young children for 15 years before shifting careers after seeing how her father’s body was handled following his death in 2018.
Catherine now works at the Nairobi Women’s Hospital Funeral Parlour, but her journey began with a conversation at the Kenyatta University morgue shortly after her father’s death.
“The reception was awesome so I started thinking about doing it,” she recalls. “I asked the women there if it was possible for a woman to be trained as a mortician and they told me it was possible.”
An online search directed her to the Moi Teaching & Referral Hospital as one of the places where training was offered. The mother of two travelled to Eldoret where she was told that the University of Nairobi also offered similar training.
“I came back and signed up for a three-month mortuary science course,” she said. Catherine has now been a mortician for three years. “I wish I knew there was such a course before I got into the teaching profession. This is where I belong.”
The mystery and fear of death means that mortuary attendants are treated differently from other professionals. Catherine says her family and friends were not keen on the idea of her handling dead bodies. “At first they thought I was crazy. My mother kept asking me if I was normal, but with time they have accepted it.”
Catherine’s mother, Fidelis Wambui, says she was shocked that her last-born daughter had made a wrong career switch. “When she first brought up the idea, I told her to go away. I didn’t want to be part of it. But she insisted and convinced me that even my husband was taken care of by human beings like her. So, with time, I agreed but told her not to tell everyone about her new job.”
Her elder sister, Ida, says she wondered if Catherine was up to the task since “death matters are grave”. “But after giving it some thought and talking to her, I realised that this was her interest, her vision and dream. Nothing was going to stop her so we had no choice but to support her.”
At the funeral parlour, Catherine receives about seven to 10 bodies a day. Some are road accident victims that need an immediate post-mortem.
“The skull is usually very hard so we use this oscillator to open it up. But we try as much as we can to maintain the life-like features of the dead person,” says Catherine as she wields the tool that makes a noise similar to an electric drill.
“After the post-mortem, we wash and disinfect the body. Then we leave it to dry for five minutes. We use gravity to embalm,” she says, pointing to a container hanging from the ceiling in the embalming room.
A mixture that contains about 10 per cent formalin and embalming fluids is applied to the body to temporarily prevent decomposition and give the body a “natural appearance” when family and friends come for a viewing. The body is left overnight in a cold room.
On the day of the burial, Catherine removes the body from the freezer to allow it to thaw on a stretcher. “Then I wash it again and dress it, put it in the coffin and release it to the family,” she says, adding that she also applies makeup, removes nail polish and unbraids hair upon request by relatives.
There is a common belief that morticians abuse alcohol to steel themselves for the job, but Catherine, a staunch Christian, says the perception is not always true.
She says one of her brothers was worried that she would always be high on booze or weed “but I told him I had been to Chiromo Funeral Parlour and people working there were normal.”
There is also a stereotype that being a mortician is a man’s job. Catherine, however, puts the number of female morticians in Kenya at about 50. The biggest challenge, she says, is when a family refuses to believe that their loved one is gone.
“Sometimes it is a very long healing process. We encourage them to view the body so they can come to terms. That is why we strive to maintain the life-like features because the last view matters a lot.”
Catherine also says it is important to comfort the families. “That is what I love doing most. Most say they are glad I helped them overcome grief. That is what gives me the morale to keep coming to work every day.”
She says the Covid-19 pandemic introduced an element of fear when handling bodies, but they attended workshops that helped them to cope. Her parting words? “We are all candidates of death so we should learn to take every day as a gift, be humble and kind to everyone.”