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Where seriousness and humor may coexist: the mortuary

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Many people get the chills just thinking about going to a mortuary. A sense of wonder is created by it. No one ever leaves the morgue in a good mood. The guest is either in the throes of crying, on the verge of a crying fit, or is feeling reflective, repentant, and anxious.

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A mortuary can be thought of as a miniature cemetery. In reality, it is only a resting place for the deceased before they are moved to a cemetery and finally returned to earth. It’s a mystical intersection of the spiritual and material worlds.

Every hospital’s mortuary department, as one would expect, displays a prominent sign. The atmosphere is consistently quiet, somber, terrible, and frigid. A mournful tone permeates the air, serving as a sobering reminder that we will all perish someday and that our earthly battles and belongings are meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

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Visit any mortuary with an eye for detail, and you’ll notice four groups of people besides the deceased. The first groups of people to arrive are the people who will be dumping the bodies. Others have traveled there to retrieve the remains of loved ones who have already been buried there. Others, however, visit for the novelty of witnessing death, while the final category consists of the employees themselves: the mortuary attendants.

The situation is not much better in the Lagos mortuary serving the Isolo General Hospital.

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A JANESCOPE  writer went on the scene last week and saw the terrible and instructive events unfold firsthand.

When you first enter the General Hospital, look to your right for a signpost with an arrow pointing to the morgue. Located next to the larger, three-story Mother and Child Centre, this cottage is simple but has a rough, rusted roofing sheet.

As you make a right turn, your sense of smell will warn you that you are approaching the afterlife. You’d know you were heading in the right direction if you started smelling the putrid stench that permeated the air. Your first thought would be, “What the heck is that awful smell?” Our Correspondent, however, was unfazed by the foul odor and made his way down to the mortuary floor, where he joined others who had come to pay their respects to the lifeless body of their sister.

Our correspondent spent the day observing the goings-on below from that perch. After taking in the scene from a safe distance, he boldly ventured inside the mortuary, where rows of embalmed bodies awaited their families. Our reporter was swiftly able to tell the attendants in boots and hand gloves that he was looking for a friend who had been missing for almost two weeks.

Using that as an alibi, he was ushered inside the room housing the bodies that had been brought in within the previous two weeks. Our writer examined the bodies and feigned not to recognize a buddy, but instead witnessed life in its most basic form. There were several corpses in the chamber, all laid out on wooden boards and ready to be claimed and taken elsewhere to be buried.

Those who go to deposit, as well as those who go to remove the bodies that have already been placed, exhibit a wide range of behaviors. Everything changes when there are women involved. From the front gate all the way to the morgue, some of them would start crying and rolling around on the floor. Someone, somewhere, is probably inconsolable right now. Others would cross their arms over their chests or over their heads, and all of them would be singing a mournful dirge.

However, there are individuals who would rush to make sure all the paperwork required to deposit or remove bodies has been signed and endorsed. Mortuary attendants won’t accept a body unless they get the all-clear from the emergency department, according to the checks.

The authorities will check your payment history before releasing a body to you when you come to pick one up. In other words, you won’t get the body back until you show proof that it’s yours and that you’ve paid off all outstanding bills related to its disposal.

Mortuary workers were surprisingly cheerful as they joked and laughed amongst themselves while everyone else in the area had some variation of a somber expression. Others were busily gormandizing platters of eba with ewedu soup, oblivious to the foul odor emanating from within, while others gulped down bottles of beer and smoked cigarettes. While some reveled in ‘Agege bread’ and mineral water, others brought in the hammer. They found the atmosphere to be quite peaceful and accommodating.

Nothing about the setting seemed out of the ordinary, and even if it had, life must continue on.

A first-time visitor would have a lot of questions, especially about the routines and habits of the staff. Doesn’t sharing a house with the dead make them feel anything like sobriety or fear?

But one of the security officers remarked, “Their nostrils are already used to the odour,” in response to the near-Spartan mentality of the attendants who, despite the awful odor at the area, nevertheless eat, drink, smoke, and crack jokes freely. Since they make it their permanent residence, it has begun to seem like home to them. So, only guests like yourself will likely find the smell to be unpleasant.

They are there to do their jobs and get money, therefore they are willing to put up with any “offensive odor,” as you describe it. Keep in mind that the drugs they put on the body are the main source of what you experience. This is not a profession for the faint of heart, my brother, and that includes those who are terrified of the dead. It takes a lot of guts and bravery to undertake this work.

The scent occasionally spread across the entire maternity wards and even up to the out-patients wards, exposing everyone there, including the expecting moms receiving antenatal treatment. It was common to see individuals covering their noses with their hands, a little towel, or a pocket square in an effort to mask the foul odor they were experiencing.

At one point, visitors to the hospital would be seen laughing and smiling as they chatted amongst themselves; but, as soon as the morgue wind swept past their nostrils, their demeanor would shift, and their once-cheerful faces would turn bony and rocky, and no one would dare to speak again. They would run away from the foul stench by any means necessary.

The security guy said that the stench was temporary because the mortuary was at capacity. You must be aware that the police bring in and deposit here the bodies of both armed robbers and beggars who die on the side of the road. Mass graves are dug for them, but only when the state authority gives the order.

Right now, they are waiting for official directives before they can bury those bodies in mass graves. The unpleasant odor would be eliminated after that was accomplished.

There were at least four bodies at the morgue at the last tally. Depending on who is involved, the bodies are transported to the morgue in everything from Danfo buses to Volkswagen Golfs to Mazda compact trucks to Mercedes Benzes and Toyota Camrys.

Most of the bodies are carried in a state too gruesome to view, so when they arrive, the vehicles are driven with the trunk practically into the morgue entrance door to make evacuation simpler and to show some respect for the dead. Once the new body was delivered, around three attendants in boots and hand gloves would come out from the interior. They would start working right away.

An unnamed attendant told our reporter that it was difficult to give an average number of bodies deposited each day because police officers sometimes brought in more than five bodies of armed robbers killed in exchanges of gunfire.

You have no way of knowing how many there are, as the cops could walk in at any moment carrying the bodies of five or more armed robbers. They may also bring in the bodies of people who have been killed in accidents or are simply driven wild and die by the side of the road. No one knows when they’ll arrive with all those corpses. This makes it extremely problematic to assert that this is the daily body count at this location. He finally said, “We can’t even hazard any rough estimate.”

He would not elaborate when asked to share stories from his time working in a morgue.

He told our reporter that only the medical director could authorize them to discuss such a matter.

He afterwards expressed regret for having spoken and begged our reporter to spare him and his career from any more publicity.

The bodies brought in by family members are stored in a separate area from those brought in by the police, as confirmed by our inspections. However, those brought in by police, particularly those of armed robbers, are crammed into a wooden cabin and thrown on the floor, in stark contrast to the orderly arrangement afforded to those brought in by family and friends.

The Lagos State Ministry of Health Mortuary vans, together with a large number of private ambulances, are parked in front of the mortuary building, however.

According to the findings of the investigation, the mortuary vans are typically utilized by the state government to transport bodies for mass burial. However, the other ambulances are owned by independent contractors who have formed a union. They wait in their vans for customers who can afford to employ them to transport bodies to various locations.

Non-union members are not permitted to keep their ambulances on the premises. Those who feel uncomfortable using their services can always call an ambulance on their own. About ten bodies were removed from the mortuary throughout the course of our reporter’s two gruesome days of observation.

It was also shown that people whose purpose was to deposit kin acted differently from those whose purpose was to retrieve family members. People who had gone to collect usually appeared solemn, with clouded eyes and a visible effort to hold back tears. However, those who had gone to the mortuary to deposit bodies appeared weary, downcast, and exhausted with red eyes, a telltale sign that they had just shed a few tears before making the trip.

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