Working with the dead: A special task

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Windhoek – Coffins, wreaths and an eerily peaceful atmosphere greeted the New Era team at Avbob Funeral Services in the sprawling township of Katutura in Windhoek.

Shortly after attending to a client that brought clothes of a deceased loved one, Francina Muulu invited us to her office.

“You may come in. Sit down,” she says, confusing us for clients. “Oh, my,” Muulu says, with an expression that hints she might have forgotten about our appointment. She soon introduced us to Stanley Gurirab, who answered the daring call to work with the dead 14 years ago. He was 24 years old at the time.

“I was just a cleaner when my friend convinced me to start doing this job. He told me that I am a hard worker and I could take over his position if he died one day,” reminisced Gurirab. “He pushed me in. There was no time to agree or disagree he pushed me in,” he recalled.

His friend taught him the basics of working with a corpse, such as washing, dressing and injecting chemical substances (formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde and methanol) that are used to preserve copses until the burial.

Gurirab’s first unnerving assignment was to wash the body of an accident victim. “I had to open up (cut) the body… I was alone. That was difficult for me. At some point I asked myself, man am I the one who is doing this (job)?

“It was a bit difficult that day. It’s the first time that I did that. Do you understand? It took me a while to get used to it.” Gurirab says the experience was not frightening as such. “I was not scared. I just had shivers,” added Gurirab.
Muulu added that aspiring mortuary workers are counselled before they start their duties. Muulu, who is more on the administrative side of work, said she started as a mortuary worker.

“I was unemployed for a long time, so when this job came I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. My family congratulated me for finding a job,” she said when asked how her family received the news that she would be working with corpses.

Gurirab, who only attended school until standard four (Grade 6), said his family also did not have a problem with his chosen career.

“Well, they only used to ask many questions about how I find the job, but they had no problem with it,” he said, adding that he has no aspirations to do any other job.

“This job is very important for me. This is the job for me, because I have done it for such a long time,” he remarked.

Although he appears to have developed nerves of steel, Gurirab was also quick to admit that it is emotionally draining at times.

“You know, we are human and as a human you feel bad when you see people dying. I’m a person. I also mourn when I see those dead bodies,” he said. “It is especially difficult when I have to work on a mother’s body,” he went on, but would not say why.

“That’s why we are not allowed to attend to the bodies of our family members, but if you feel you are strong enough to do it then you can,” Muulu interrupted.

Gurirab said: But it’s a good job and I love it.” He then asked this reporter: “Why is it that you are not afraid of me when I’m alive, but you would be afraid of me when I’m dead?”

Muulu also spoke passionately about her job. “I love my job. The environment with the colleagues is very conducive and even working with corpses I don’t have a problem with that,” she said.

Considering the nature of the job, cleanliness is of utmost importance.
“The place must always be clean. And we are injected three times a year to prevent us from getting diseases,” explained Muulu, who has worked with corpses for the past seven years.

Attending to the dead

The police normally conduct a post mortem at the State mortuary, they explained. “They cut the body open to assess the cause of death and they leave it to us to close the body,” said Muulu. She added that funeral services no longer pick up bodies of people who died at home.

“People would say their loved ones died a natural death, but it is not always true that they died natural deaths. So, now it’s the police’s work to pick up bodies at home,” Muulu explained.

The funeral services together with family take over the body once the police release it, they noted.

“We clean the body, inject it, dress it and put it in the coffin and then we ask the family to come in and see if they are happy with the way the corpse is. If they are not happy with the way we dressed the body we do it again according to their instructions,” said Muulu.

She added: “We have to be sure that the eyes are closed properly and that the mouth is closed properly. Even in the case of an accident victim we have to make sure that the body does not look too gruesome for the family and loved ones when they view the body,” said Muulu.

Ahe admits though that working with dead bodies is not always easy.

“There are people who don’t have teeth. It’s a bit difficult to close the mouth of a corpse that does not have teeth. And then there are people with big teeth. It is also difficult to close the mouth of such a corpse.

“We try our best and if we fail we tell the family. It’s up to them to decide whether they want the body to be viewed by all mourners or just close family members.”
On a weekly basis, there are at least eight bodies at the Avbob mortuary in Katutura although the numbers vary at different times.

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