Body bribes: How mortuary attendants exploit families in grief

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A family in Navakholo that was involved in an unfortunate mix-up, viewing the wrong body. (Photo/ Benard Lusigi)

The telltale signs are rarely discernible. And when it happens, death hits family and friends like a thunderbolt.

People fear death yet it is inevitable and brings with it undefined emotions to the relatives of the deceased.

Why didn’t we see it coming? Why did they do it? Why couldn’t we stop them? How could they do this to us? These are some of the questions that run through minds of relatives and friends on losing a loved one.

And now a new trend is emerging.

Families have been forced to spend colossal amounts of money preparing for the final rites of  their beloved kin only to discover they picked the wrong body.

This has occasioned expensive cleansing rituals to appease the dead, pay for the exhumation of a body wrongly interred and also conduct another burial ceremony.

The dilemma here is how the mix-up happens at the morgue where names of the deceased are taken from family members and documented. Further, bodies are conserved with name tags placed on them. 

A spot check by The Nairobian has established that the culture of tokenism (kitu kidogo) is the main cause of the body mix ups.

Tokenism is  so entrenched among morgue attendants and morticians to the extent that if one does not part with some money, besides the normal mortuary fees, the body of one’s relative will not be preserved properly.

“When the family of deceased person pays one (a morgue attendant or mortician) and his colleagues do not get their share, they give wrong tags to the body as a punishment to the family and those who received the bribe but didn’t share with others,” said a mortuary attendant.

A mortician working at Kakamega Funeral Parlour who sought anonymity says enmity and jealousy among morticians over tokenism from the deceased person’s family members to take care of the corpse is the main cause of the rising cases of mix-up.

“When the body is brought to the morgue, the mortician on duty is given some money by relatives of the deceased as an inducement to take care the corpse. When his or her duty ends and a colleague comes to take over, the family members of the deceased cannot be permitted to view the body unless they pay,” he revealed. 

Allegedly, the morgue attendants receive as much as Sh5,000 for a visit by relatives to view the body. 

According to the mortician, removal of name tags is deliberate, perpetuated by colleagues whose palms have not be greased. 

Tony Otaya, a mortician at Busia Referral Hospital acknowledges bad blood among the mortuary workers over bribes to ensure bodies are well kept and in good condition. Apparently, bodies of prominent and wealthy individuals normally attract fights among morgue attendants.

“This is work like any other job and jealousy among mortuary workers is common. The rich pay handsomely to ensure the beloved is given utmost care,” Otaya told The Nairobian. “

According to Otaya, if a colleague discovers that a workmate was given money and she or he never benefited, chances of with-hunt are normally high. 

“The corpse may be exchanged or handled carelessly leading to unknotting of the tag. In some circumstances, the mortician deliberately exchanges the identification tag leading to collection of a wrong body,” Otaya said as he lifted the lid on some of the antics morgue workers employ to make an extra coin.

The mortician also attributes family wrangles to collection of the wrong corpses especially when the dead was a polygamous man.  

“Some wives of the deceased engage in quarrels on who has the right to collect the body to the extent that one of the women sneaks to the morgue to pick the corpse and, in the process of hurrying, ends up fetching the wrong body,” noted Otaya.

Dickson Muchana, the western region government pathologist based at Kakamega County Funeral Parlour, says nicknames sometimes contribute to the mix-ups. 

Dr Muchana says his department has come across cases where a person gives the nickname of the deceased which morgue workers innocently indicate on the tag.

This happens especially when the deceased was either living with a partner or friend who only knew the person by the nickname.

“In the real sense, this is not the official name of the person and we have many bodies with nicknames. When the family comes to pick the body, they end up taking the wrong one in circumstances where nicknames are similar,” Muchana says.

The pathologist says relatives are to be blamed for the mix-ups for not being keen when identifying and collecting the body of their kin.

“The family usually comes before the collection date armed with clothes for dressing the deceased. It is at this point, we normally advise relatives to ensure they identify the body of their beloved one  before the collection day,” says Muchana.

According to the pathologist, mix-ups also happen when toe tags untie during the process of preservation.

“When we take the body to the fridge, with time it undergoes freezing, and that leads to tags getting off. We, however, are rooting for a ring that will go around the arm of the dead to avoid mix-ups,” said Muchana.

Some of the families affected by body mix-up incidents, however, opine that there is a need for improved procedures and safeguards to prevent such mistakes from happening in the future. 

In Sirigoi village of Navakholo, Kakamega County, there was an unfortunate incident recently after a family realised they picked the wrong body on the burial day.

The family of 64-year old Respa Khatsenzia was preparing to bury her, only to discover that the body they had picked was  that of Susan Kungu from Shikokho village in Ikolomani constituency.

Wafula Weksenia, representing the Khatsenzia family, said preparations for the funeral had been underway for days, marked by the performance of traditional rituals, only to discover it was a wrong body.

“We were shocked when we received a call informing us that the body we had picked was for a different woman and not that of our beloved Respa,” said Weksenia.

The family was forced to return the body to the morgue. 

“We had already slaughtered two cows.We agreed with the other family to bring the body of our relative in exchange of theirs, then had it buried the same day,” said Weksenia

The family of Evans Mutiti was the one whose body had been collected by Khatsenzia’s family. The man had gone to Kakamega Referral Hospital mortuary to collect the body of his wife Susan only to find it missing.

“I was prepared to give my wife a peaceful rest only to find out that her body was missing in the morgue and had been taken by another family for burial,” recounts Mutiti.

The family rushed to Navakholo, picking Susan’s body, which was about to be buried. 

The body was taken back to the morgue ahead of an elaborate cleansing ritual.

Following the experience, Mutiti is calling for extreme caution when identifying bodies in order to avoid such embarrassing encounters.

“People should be extremely careful when identifying the bodies of their beloved ones to avoid incurring unnecessary expenses and strenuous cleansing rituals,” said Mutiti.

“Mortuary attendants should be professional and avoid taking kickbacks as an appreciation for the purpose of having the body preserved well,” he added.

Josephat Marani, an elder, emphasises on the importance of conducting rituals to remove any bad omens that could have been cast upon the families due to the mix-up.

“We have to perform rituals to remove bad omens that may affect our family before laying our beloved Susan to rest,” Marani says.

 

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