Death is one of life’s greatest mysteries which will happen to each and every one of us whether or not we like it.
And when it does eventually happen, it is normally the adult aged that are consulted to handle the corpse especially if the individual dies at home.
When death occurs in hospital, trained nursing staff or mortuary attendants ferry the body to a mortuary where relatives will pick it up for burial.
In some instances, a funeral home is engaged and immediately takes over as happened recently when I lost a very close neighbour, who was headmaster at a high school in Dzivaresekwa.
I was at the hospital when a very trendy young woman arrived with a male colleague who proceeded to the bed where the body of my lifeless neighbour lay.
The woman examined the body and signalled her male companion to come over and help her lift the body into a coffin.
It was such a spectacle as she went about her work with so much ease, showing no emotions at all.
“This is just a job, and I am so used to it that I have lost the count of bodies that I have handled since I started work as a mortician a couple of years ago,” said Chenge Jones who works for First Funeral Services, a funeral parlour located in the Kopje area of Harare.
Jones and her male colleague lifted the coffin and walked out of the hospital to a van that was parked in the backyard.
It was just after hospital visiting hours and there were still a good number of people that were around the premises.
One woman exclaimed: “Why did that girl choose such a job. Oh my God that’s terrible!”
Jones, who recently married, says when she told her partner as about her job while they were still dating, he did not believe her. “My husband married me because of who I am and not because of the profession that I am attached to. I suffered a miscarriage last month and that was a major setback for me.
“This job may look odd to ordinary people but we are your best friends when everyone else is running away from you when you are dead.” Her family and friends however hold her in high esteem and they consult her whenever they have lost a relative or a friend.
“Friends and relatives tell me that I should live for many years because I had made their funerals an easy burden to handle.”
Jones said she started visiting the mortuary when she was a 15-year-old student learning at Girls High School in Harare.
“My mother worked for a local funeral home as an accountant but she had never set her foot in the mortuary. I was so curious and inquisitive about what happened to the dead bodies that were brought to that parlour.”
When her mother, Constance Kembo, collapsed and died in South Africa when she was in her teens, that incident that triggered her desire to work in a funeral home. She said she turned down a couple of times by funeral home directors but she got her breakthrough when she had lost hope.
“When mother died my life just changed for the worst. There was no one to bail me out and I was constantly kicked out of school but managed to write my ‘O’levels. It was really tough. Life without a mother is so tough and unbearable.”
Speaking with a deep, sad look in her eyes she said she had insisted on touching her mother’s dead body as it lay in a coffin during viewing time.
“That was not my mother anymore I told myself. It was just a lifeless body and there was nothing else to it. I caressed her face. Dead bodies are not as scary as you have heard. They are just bodies that are powerless.”
Jones said a mortician provides an important service to grieving families by overseeing funeral rituals and preparing the body of the deceased for a final viewing.
She added that they were also involved in planning and directing funerals.
“I have directed some very stormy funeral services where families will be feuding openly. I have also witnessed conflicts between relatives at burial sites.”
The young woman said she however has had very melancholy moments during her course of duty. She cited in particular two incidents which she said would forever remain imprinted in her mind.
“One is that of a very large woman who was found dead five days later as her body emitted an unpleasant smell as she lay in her lodgings where she lived with her young grandchild, who had not been aware that her granny was dead.
“This body had turned blue-green and as I pulled the body from the drawer it squirted out some liquid which landed on my hips causing some skin irritation which needed medical treatment. There was nothing much that could be done to the body so we placed it in a coffin, with body viewing and we went straight to the burial grounds.”
The other case involved a man who was crushed by a long-distance heavy truck in Mbare as he was speaking to his wife instructing her to quickly pack her bag as he was travelling to Zambia on his usual business trips.
He was a long-distance driver.
She said as she moved the coffin of this young man into the chapel, she was weeping openly.
The pastor who was conducting the funeral told mourners to pray for her as “she was too young to do such a job”.
“But what these people did not know was that I was grieving because I had seen the severe damage to his lower torso as I was cleaning this body. There was nothing from waist downwards. His intestines were by his side. Oh, it was a nasty sight!”
The mortician said some of the major causes of death included HIV and Aids, and traffic accidents.
“Corpses are my friends who are deserted by the living when they suddenly go still. I too was deserted by the living when my mother died and I could have become a street adult but I found grace in God. I am at peace working with people who don’t speak back to you.”
“I owe my success to Lennon who is now late, for training me to become who I am today.
He allowed me to wash corpses when I was still in school and that is how I developed the ability not to be afraid of the dead. Jones said she was also inspired by a mortuary attendant who she found taking a drink which he had stored in one of the mortuary refrigerators to cool.
“Lennon showed me how to open the refrigerated drawers where dead bodies are stored and then demonstrated to me how bodies are cleaned. He also showed me the pressure points, where Cavite, an embalming fluid is injected to slow decomposition.
“That process became a regular routine as I looked forward to this adventure all the time I visited my mother at her workplace.”
Jones, who refused to divulge her age, said her future plans include starting her own funeral parlour should funds permit.
“I would love to own a funeral parlour that deals with women’s corpses. That is my desire for the future. I am aware of the challenges faced by women and I am looking forward to see the day that I will run my own morgue.”
Contrary to what people say that people who work at funeral parlours and mortuaries consume alcohol to relieve stress related to this work, Jones is a sober person who leads an alcohol-free lifestyle.
“I am a member of Church of Christ church in Mufakose and I uphold the Biblical principles. I am as sober as a brand new baby.”