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Working As A Mortuary Attendant 

By Elizabeth Bessinula*

Spending about 30 minutes in a mortuary can be frightening. It is even scarier being there alone or at night.

This is the experience I had when I recently spent about two hours, having a chat with an attendant at the Buea Regional Hospital Mortuary. The sight of dead bodies and a body being embalmed left me frightened, uneasy and bewildered. I am talking about just two hours, what about someone who has been there for about 11 years working as an attendant.

According to my source, who preferred to be simply called Peter, and his colleague Henri Nteudem, (both mortuary attendants) they feel normal in the mortuary. From childhood, one hears numerous tales, opinions and superstitious beliefs about the mortuary. Some say you have to knock on the door severally so that corpses can adjust, others believe that mysterious things occur there at night. 

What does it mean to work as a mortuary attendant then, I asked? “It is like any other job. I feel normal working here and I have been doing so for about 11 years,” Peter said. Peter said he first worked as a security guard at the Buea Regional Hospital Annex where he helped several families to take corpses to the morgue. Then, he said, he developed a love for the job.

On what it takes to become a mortuary attendant, Peter said no particular qualification is required for an ordinary mortuary attendant. Basically, he is expected to know how to handle corpses. He explained that to do embalming, a mortuary attendant must have at least the GCE Ordinary Level certificate and must undergo some training and practice.

“I learned to embalm from Dr. Kawah, for eight months. Then, I was paid FCFA 1 million to teach another person,” explained Nteudem. Your reporter gathered that the attendants work in shifts and that that sector generates good money for the hospital, bringing in an estimated FCFA 3 million monthly.

While declining to state how much they earn, they said their pay is handsome. “We are well paid and we have never had problems with our salaries as we are always paid in time. The hospital officials do not joke with our money,” Peter and Nteudem said. They dismissed stories some people tell about the mortuary as false.

“These stories are just to frighten people. When a man is dead, he is dead. I have not experienced any of the things they say. I do not knock on the door in order to get in,” Peter explained. Nteudem, on his part, said it is unnecessary to knock. According to him, some attendants are making money out of the practice as they charge as much as FCFA 5,000 in some mortuaries from bereaved families.

He also refuted claims that beer is used for washing corpses, to render the corpse’s muscles flexible. He said mortuary attendants who demand beer do so for their personal use.
The two mortuary attendants explained that they have never been scared to exercise their duties.

However, though they confessed love for their jobs, they said they face temptations and challenges. Peter cited disrespect from some bereaved families. However, they said they face bigger challenges and temptation from some medical doctors who, according to Peter, usually try to bribe them to supply them some human parts. They also revealed that some families abandon corpses of relations in the mortuary, not because of financial constraints, but because of disputes or denial to recognise the body.

Preserving Corpses

When a person dies, the attendants explained, a physician must examine the body before declaring it dead.  But, Nteudem said, due to the limited number of physicians at the hospital, a competent mortuary attendant can carry out this function using specific signs and methods.
“A gap of at least six hours is given before embalming, so that there are no chances of embalming a living body,” said Nteudem. According to them, a corpse can be treated in two ways at the mortuary; through arterial embalming and fridge treatment.

Nteudem said arterial embalmment is the process whereby Hyde fluid is injected into the body via the arteries, using an electric injector. Going by him, this is mostly done by the rich as it is more expensive. He said the fridge treatment is for the common man who cannot afford arterial embalming. The Post learned it costs an average of FCFA 10,000 per week to preserve using the fridge treatment.

“The lowest amount to embalm a body is FCFA 50,000 and it is taxed according to weight. A body which is embalmed weekly is not put in the fridge,” Nteudem explained. However, Peter said if a person dies of cholera, the body is not embalmed because the corpse is highly contagious. If it has to be kept in the fridge, it is injected with Anthyl.

The attendants disclosed that between 10 and 15 corpses are registered weekly. But there could be one or two consecutive days without any corpse registered in the Buea mortuary. Asked what job he would settle for if given another chance, Peter said, he would still like to be a mortuary attendant.

*(UB Journalism Student On Internship)


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