Elkanah Mwinami,
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Morticians' life lessons gleaned from the dead

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Elkanah Mwinami, a mortician and laboratory assistant at the Aga Khan Hospital. He is the National Chairman of the Morticians and Allied Professionals Association of Kenya.

Photo credit: Pool

Have you ever considered the lessons you could learn from a deceased person? While many people only take away glowing tributes based on memories shared, for morticians every day they interact with the dead is a chance to learn life's greatest truths.

For Elkanah Mwinami, a mortician and lab assistant at Aga Khan Hospital, the dead have taught him patience.

"What this career has taught me, because I have the privilege of handling the living and the dead, is patience," he says. "I handle people of all classes. Being in this profession teaches you that you do not need to push people. Be patient. That's the biggest virtue I have learned in this space."

Mr Mwinami became a mortician by chance.

"I was employed in 1990 as a lab assistant. The job description entailed assisting the mortician at that time, and that is how I got introduced to this career. I was 24 years old," he says.

Distilled water

During the interview, he was asked, 'How do you prepare distilled water? How do you feel when you see a lot of blood?'

"I told them 'okay' because I did not know what it meant; I had never encountered a lot of blood. But later on, I understood what they meant. Then the final question, was, 'If called upon, would you assist in the mortuary?' I said, 'Of course! At that time, I was looking for a job, and so with little thought, I answered in the affirmative," Mr Mwinami says.

He had never handled a cadaver, let alone been in the mortuary.

"Where I come from, the body is brought home for viewing. That is the only experience I had," he says.

Part of his learning was by apprentice, he says, but he had to go back to school and pursue a certificate in Mortuary Science from Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology. He is currently pursuing a diploma in the same field at the Kenya Medical Training College.

"That is the highest level. We are still working with Masinde Muliro to see whether they can introduce a Bachelor of Science in Mortuary Science. A curriculum is being worked on. So, part of my reward in this profession is being able to organise morticians to form a professional association and pursue academic ventures to bring up modern, trained, qualified and licensed morticians," he adds.

Dos and don'ts

Having done and passed his job interview on a Friday, Mr Mwinami reported on Monday and during the next three months in the lab, he was taken to the hospital's mortuary to get to know that side of his profession.

"My mentor, Katana, was gentle with me. He took me into the room, and of course, there was no cadaver out, all were in the fridge. He showed me where autopsies are done, where to dress and prepare the dead, the equipment used, how to handle the different bodies from where they passed on to the morgue, and the dos and don'ts."

I'm curious, what were the don'ts?

"No photography. You don't discuss the dead; they also have their rights so we maintain confidentiality. When you do an autopsy, you see a lot of things; but you remain with them. It is not in your place to discuss with people. Ours is to take care of the body. At all times, treat them like you do other patients."

Different bodies are handled differently. For clinical deaths, a mortician has some leeway (to clean, shroud and put in the freezer). However, in medical-legal cases – those with unknown causes of death – one receives and stores the body as given.

Was it scary the first time he had to work on a body?

Up until he became a mortician, Mr Mwinami says he feared viewing dead women.

"Somewhat I had strength to view men but not women. Now here I am. All bodies are wrapped in a white sheet and that is going to be the order of the day," he says.

So, how did he overcome? "I'll be honest, I don't know how I confronted the fear but somehow I managed to. Of course, the first few months it was not easy especially when I'm told, 'Go to the ward and bring the body.' So, the first time I was trembling in the corridors."

Just like most professions, some challenges linger. Mr Mwinami remembers how he had been brought for a body that had been crashed in an accident, and it had no head.

"The only thing I was given was a passport-size photo of the deceased. As a mortician, that family expects that you will do justice to that head until they see their beloved during the funeral day. We managed to reconstruct the deceased, and the family came and could not believe it. I remember one of them asking, 'Mlitoa wapi kichwa yake?’ (Where did you get his head?) ," he says.

Giving the deceased relatives and friends closure to the pain, is at the crux of his profession, he says.

"If you give them good closure, these people have enough time to heal, pick up their lives, and move on."

Sometimes work challenges become too much and people quit or change jobs. But Mr Mwinami has never thought of quitting.

"Quitting was not an option. The job is scary but interesting. Just like any other profession, there are always fears especially when it is skills-based. Supposing the relatives are not happy with how I prepared their loved one? The body is in bad shape will I be able to reconstruct it to the liking of his/her relatives? So those are fears! I was never scared of what people used to say 'these people will come back to haunt you," he says.

Therapy

Workplace counselling helps manage the emotional toll that comes with working in a mortuary.

Mr Mwinami says his trigger is babies.

Every mortician has an age bracket that he or she is not fond of and when you are handling a body of that age, it will affect you.

"For me, the most difficult ones to handle are babies below five years. Because they are innocent and have not tasted life. They are dead. It's unfortunate. Unfair. Remember, we are also human. Like here in Aga Khan Hospital, we are allowed to talk to the counsellors. That helps," he says.

Secondly, Mr Mwinami says that the Morticians and Allied Professionals Association of Kenya (Mapake) has a peer support programme quarterly to exchange their experiences, challenges, what one has gone through and how they overcame them.

"You get a lot of solace when relatives of the deceased tell you thank you. Just a thank you. You know it is very difficult to tell a mortician thank you. When someone comes and tells you thank you, you feel motivated," he says.

Severally, Mr Mwinami admits that some families have returned to apologise after giving him a hard time.

"They say, 'Elikanah in our worst moment, we might have talked to you rudely or told you things that were not good. We are sorry. Please forgive us.' In our curriculum, we have grief counselling, so you need to understand how different people/cultures grieve. Once you understand it, you let it go. You don't take it personally," he says.

Fulfilment

Is the career fulfilling? I ask.

"Yes. I will give you an example of a carpenter. Before a table became one, it was wood. They worked on it until it became a beautiful table. So, the deceased has been ailing. This person might come to me when they are not in their best figure. But the family comes with a portrait of the deceased. 'Kindly make mom look like this.' What is your goal as a mortician? To make sure that the family leaves here at least consoled. My role in consoling them is to make sure their mom looks like the mom sleeping," he says.

The career, Mr Mwinami who is also chairman of Mapake, says, it is growing among young people.

"Currently, we have more than 200 youth doing a Diploma in Mortuary Science in colleges in Mombasa, Nairobi and Kisumu. For the certificate in Mortuary Science also, there is an influx in numbers," he says.

For salary, he explains, it is a bit tricky to have an exact estimate because of the lack of a scheme of service that uniforms the profession. However, most public hospitals pay around Sh25,000 to Sh50,000 with some going as low as Sh15,000 and others as high as Sh100,000.

Is the funeral industry still dominated by men?

Petite Ng'ang'a, a mortician working with Muriranjas Sub County Hospital in Murang'a County, says that in the past, the profession was male-dominated, but currently women have taken the lead.  Ms Ng'ang'a is also a member and peer group coordinator at Makape.

For those looking to join the career, she says, "You must be presentable, in addition to knowing your craft. Remember, people already have a stereotype of how morticians look."

Ms Ng'ang'a has been a mortician for four years but says she was comfortable viewing the bodies of relatives from a tender age.

"I was curious to see how the bodies were preserved in the mortuary, but by then I didn't know that I wanted to be a mortician. When I grew up, I realised I loved science, biology…and things to do with the body system," she says.

"As I grew, I became interested in Forensic Science but after high school, I didn't know where to start. I pursued a Bachelor in Commerce, Accounting option and then afterwards, I wanted to travel abroad to pursue Mortuary Science but I had visa issues. So, I came to learn about the course at the University of Nairobi when I went to Chiromo Funeral Parlour to ask to learn on the job but I was told to study first. I got in and did my Certificate in Mortuary Science," she says.

More opportunities

After completing her certificate, she did not get a job immediately because there were few mortuaries then. However, the profession has widened as more entrepreneurs invest in funeral homes and the industry takes in more professionals.

"Right now, because of the diploma course which started last year, there are a lot of opportunities. You can work in an anatomy lab, or forensic field, pathology assistant, managerial superintendent, and also teaching. You know we are the first class," she says.

The profession has also gained acceptance.

"Now we have a diploma course which goes for three years like other medical courses such as clinical medicine or pharmacy. Also, being licensed by Kenya Health Professions Oversight Authority (KHPOA), means a mortician cannot practice without a license," she says.

Like Mr Mwinami, Ms Ng'ang'a's difficult body to handle is that of babies. "I once worked on a baby who'd been severely burnt while inside a house. As a mom, it was so tough," she says.

Be sober

Having worked in the profession for now six years, Catherine Njenga, a mortician at the Gertrude's Children's Hospital, says that for one to stand out in the profession he or she needs to be compassionate, empathetic, organised, well detail-oriented and passionate about working with people in need.

"You should also lead a healthy lifestyle, be sober, physically fit, sensitive, and have positive communication skills. Have dignity and respect of the dead,"  said Ms Njenga, who doubles up as the vice chairperson of Mapake.