Life as a mortician…‘All you’ve heard about mortuaries is superstition’

The Chronicle

Kudzai Chikiwa, Showbiz Reporter

Have you ever thought about working in a mortuary? Well, if you are like most people, this has never crossed your mind because just the thought of handling dead bodies on a daily basis can put off an average person. If you are superstitious, it can even be frightening. 

Many always wonder what sort of people morticians (those who dress dead bodies), popularly known as an undertakers, are? Are they normal people with families? How does one decide to be a mortician? 

There is a lot of mystery surrounding morticians as some say they are born abnormal.Some say they go about talking to themselves and that they work under the influence of drugs. Others say that they do not  have normal family setups.

For *Mthulisi Nyoni (42) who works at a local funeral parlour, being a mortician has been more of a calling to provide comfort to grieving families being his motivation.

Saturday Leisure scheduled a meeting with Nyoni and he suggested that it be conducted at his home, in a suburb in Bulawayo. While the meeting was eye opener, to be frank, I was so sceptical when he suggested that I visit him at his home.

Upon arriving, I was welcomed with a huge smile from a man who was dressed very well in blue jeans and formal shirt. He confused me a bit as I had my pre-conceived ideas about what a mortician looks like.

He offered me a seat while he also sat comfortably on his black couch with his mobile phone in hand. He then began narrating the journey of his “strange” profession.

“I didn’t grow up saying ‘I want to be a mortician’. With weird stories around the job, no one would wish to be one. But circumstances force us into what we never dreamt to be,” he said while visibly in deep thought.

Having been raised within a very humble background in the heart of a rural area, Nyoni experienced the deaths of three people very close to him.

“My mother died when I was 13 and I was the only person who was present so I dressed her. Barely three years after, the same happened it was my father. This time I was sharing the same blanket with him. Thirdly, my uncle died and I was the first to dress him again,” he narrated.

All these experiences, Nyoni said helped him understand the value of dressing the dead as it gives closure to the bereaved.

He went on to narrate how these experiences drove him to apply for the job although he was not qualified for it as he only had one Ordinary Level subject. As fate would have it, he got the job. On his first day, Nyoni said he was told to open trays of dead bodies, likely to test him, but he was not afraid because he had encountered this before.

Asked about the mysteries and the talk about the mortuary and dead people walking around, Nyoni who has been a mortician for 16 years said all these are superstitions.

“The things people hear about the mortuary are all superstitions. These demons and spirits are all superstitions. I can tell you with assurance that you can visit the graveyard at 7PM and you’ll come out without being afraid. 

“It’s all about your mindset. If you believe that ghosts exist, then you’ll feel their presence,” he said.

From the 16 years that Nyoni has been working with dead bodies, he said he has never encountered the superstitious things.

“To me, it’s just a normal workplace like an office. I can get in the mortuary any time without feeling or seeing anything. Anyway, I believe a dead man knows nothing.”

The mortician said some people are haunted by the dead’s spirits because they try to dress them while under the influence of drugs.

“Where I work, we don’t take any drugs. We get into the mortuary in a very sober state. The problem with intoxicating oneself in order to dress a dead body is that you do everything in an abnormal state. 

“But when you’re sober, you start having flashbacks and you suffer trauma. Do your job in a sober way and you won’t have challenges,” he suggested.

How does he sleep at night after spending the day with dead people? Does he sometimes have nightmares?

“I’ve never had any nightmare because I encountered death at a very tender age so it’s normal seeing bodies. But, death is very painful and fresh everyday so sometimes it brings memories of my experiences,” he said. 

While most people look down upon morticians, Nyoni said, what they do not know is that the job pays fairly well. Also, because of this, they are made to dress well at funerals so that people do not identify them easily. 

“At funerals, people tend to think that the morticians are those who’ll be wearing overalls not knowing that we’ll be among those in suits.” 

Some people, especially those who run businesses are said to ask for water that has been used to bath dead bodies for rituals. Asked if he had encountered such requests, Nyoni said: “I simply ask them if they’re able to distinguish tap water from the one used to bath dead bodies. If I wanted to make money, I could have been selling tap water to them, but I fear God and respect the dead. 

“However, we don’t have the chance to take this water.”

A husband and father to a 13-year-old son, the undertaker who is also a businessman said his wife and son do not know that he is a mortician. 

“Before I married my wife, I opened up to her that I’m a mortician. She, up to today, does not believe it. For my son, it’s something that I cannot tell him openly because of beliefs around the profession. 

“You never know with these things. It may disturb the child so I decided to keep it to myself. What matters is that I’m a responsible husband and father,” he said.

His neighbours, Nyoni said, also do not know his profession.

“I just told them that I work at a funeral parlour and can answer all questions pertaining to funeral policies. But if they ask about dressing the dead, I tell them that I can refer them to the right candidate.” Dressing dead bodies, Nyoni said needs one to have passion for the job as it may be scary sometimes.

“We have to do even more detailed reconstructions for some bodies, such as those who’ll have been involved in traffic accidents so their bodies are viewable for families. This is a difficult job and you have to be very dextrous to be able to reconstruct a body.  There can also be heavy manual work involved as well,” he said.

Also, Nyoni said morticians need to have a big heart and possess counselling skills as they deal with broken-heartened families.

“You’ll be dealing with people who are heart broken and have emotions so you need counselling skills. Dressing their relatives well brings closure to them,” he said. 

When he is not working, Nyoni who runs a retail shop said plays soccer and attends gatherings to socialise. — @tamary98.

*Not his real name