How one question set me on the path to becoming a Mortician - the Ann Wanjiku story [Part 2]

She is everything you'd never expect a Mortician to be!

Pulse Youth Mtaani: Mortician Ann Wanjiku Njoki's story

This is Part 2 of the Pulse Youth Mtaani series covering Mortician Ann Wanjiku Njoki's story. Find Part 1 here.

What is the hardest part of your job?

I’d say it is being reminded of my own personal losses. Sometimes you get to attend to a body of a person who reminds you of the people you have lost and it can even go as far as the circumstances in which the person lost their life and the situation of the family left behind ends up being quite similar to your own experience.

And you see, the job requires that we suppress some of these emotions so it can be quite difficult.

What does your family think about your job?

You know, some of my relatives helped me to get through school for my current profession so I’d say they understand me and the work I do.

But equally, there are those who may not fully understand. I only get to hear rumours of a relative who was wondering about my job, they never come up to me and ask directly.

Some ask questions like, “Mbona akaenda kufanya course ya watu hawajasoma?”, “Alikosa kazi ingine ya kufanya ama ni nini?”

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where the body you were attending to was that of a relative? If yes, how was that experience?

Unfortunately, I have. It was quite a difficult experience because it happened after a change-over in shifts. The one who was handing over to me as I reported for my shift didn’t know that my aunt had been brought in and I also don’t think there was any way it could have been helped. Because even as I went through the records and counter-checked that what we had on paper was concurrent with the situation in the cold room I didn’t notice the name.

I only came to find out after I saw my aunt’s children at our reception and I had not been told about her passing so all they told me was, “...kwani hujui mum ako huku kwenu?”.

At first I thought they were talking about her being admitted in the hospital but they were referring to the funeral home.

I still had to do my job but of course some adjustments were made. It is impossible for a funeral home to avoid such situations because first of all, death is always unplanned. You never know when your loved one will pass on. Then also, names can be similar and even then, how does the morgue keep a record of all the names of your family members?

So we just go case by case and when a mortician discovers that a relative has been brought in then we accommodate them and plan accordingly.

How do you deal with viewing sessions with a family that has been bereaved?

Viewing happens first when the body arrives. This is probably the most emotional one because it involves a lot of shock. This is the first time relatives get to see their deceased loved one so it is understandable. From there, in between the day of arrival and departure, there are other viewings which may be requested by the family say in a case where someone was away like in Nairobi or elsewhere so as they plan the funeral they may request to see their loved one just to accept that the person is gone.

On the final day when the body is picked for burial then the best a mortician can do is offer a shoulder to cry on if needed. There is nothing you can tell a person who is grieving because most of the time we may say the wrong thing. I find it is best to just be silent and offer a hug or a gentle pat on the back.

Do you believe in life after death?

I do. I am a Christian. But of course we don’t know exactly what it is like in the beyond.

What’s an example of a common misconception about dead bodies that you would like to correct?

There’s something I hear a lot when families come to pick their loved ones, this idea that “...oh, their hair and nails have continued to grow…” I’d like to clarify that it’s a myth. What happens is, because of the body being dehydrated, the skin at the fingertips and even the scalp pulls back creating that optical illusion of some growth.

Another common misconception is this urban myth of dead bodies “waking up” at the morgue. Let me just clarify that it is impossible for such a thing to happen. I’d even lose my job together with so many other medics if such a thing ever happened. It’s good for people to know that there is a process right from the medical ward or emergency room before a body reaches the morgue. All those professionals cannot make such a huge blunder!

Besides that, the temperatures in our fridge compartments are as low as 23 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius), how can a person survive that?

What would you advise young people looking for employment opportunities?

Do not be afraid of doing any kind of work even if you have a degree. Put that degree aside and do the work you find even if it is not what you are trained for. If it is a business you are passionate about, don’t wait around for someone to give you a job, start your business!

Don’t mind if you will get dirty or if you will have to fold your sleeves, money is money. So long as you are not doing something illegal and you are working for what you have then don’t be too keen on having a glamorous job. Forget what anyone will say, just follow your passion. When passion leads nothing is impossible.

Is the pay good? And what course does one take in University to become a Mortician?

There are some services that are very hard to pay for. I’d say we are not compensated as we deserve. If you look at the work we do, it is work that not even your closest family member can do for you. I’m lucky to be employed by a private institution which also gives me medical insurance and compensates me well, the work environment is so top notch...my counterparts in the public sector cannot speak of such benefits.

I remember there was a time when I broke my thumb while at work and my employer was gracious enough to cater for all the medical bills and even other assistance that was needed to make sure my thumb healed well. If there was an association for morticians these are some of the issues which would need to be addressed.

There are various institutions which offer the course for morticians, it is called Mortuary Science or Morgue Training. University of Nairobi offers it at Chiromo and Uzima College in Kisumu.

Is there an association for Morticians in Kenya and what’s the difference between a Pathologist and a Mortician?

At the moment there isn’t an association for morticians, there have been attempts to start one but for some reason it never picks up. We even tried to start one for morticians in Laikipia county but many challenges hindered us from being consistent.

A pathologist has studied diagnostics and is often called in to examine a body and establish the cause of death. In the case of a forensic pathologist then they can even give testimony in a court of law especially when there is suspected foul play or in instances where insurance compensation is involved. However, a pathologist cannot do their work without a mortician. We set up the room for the post-mortem and also prepare the bodies for the examinations and afterwards we are still responsible for ensuring the body is ready for burial.

Do you think morticians need any kind of mental health support to cope with the demands of the work they do?

I think it is needed because, as it is, a mortician leaves school and goes into work sometimes without understanding the full extent of the work and the emotions involved. So you find that most of them will turn to substances to help them cope. You’ll find that some are drinking too much or using other drugs so that by the time they have to do their work they are completely numb.

Other times it’s as simple as you leave work and get back to your house and you don’t understand why you have this overwhelming sadness or anger...kumbe it’s your body’s way of responding to everything you have gone through and seen during the day.

Take us through what a normal work day looks like for you from morning to evening.

Just like any other normal working-class Kenyan I get up in the morning and prepare myself for work and normally my first stop is in the cold room. After picking the keys and getting in I check whether there were any calls from the casualty that night.

In case there were then I call the driver - we have a car reserved for this purpose because our mortuary is a bit of a distance from the main hospital - so once we get to casualty that is where the handover is done.

Once we get back to the mortuary we have to attend to the body immediately so after gearing up we wash the body, do facial setting, label properly and then load them into the fridges.

The next part is giving them admissions on our register and wait for the family to give further instructions because it’s possible they were not there when their loved one passed on that night.

When the family arrives then we complete the admission process and they get to view the body to confirm that indeed that is their deceased.

If there is a dispatch [a body being collected for burial], the body thawed overnight so what a mortician does is the final grooming, putting on shoes and a headscarf in case there’s one, and also makeup in case there was a request to do so. The dressing bit is normally done the day before.

To ensure that this pick up day is easy on the family, at Pope Benedict XVI Funeral Home we have a policy of clearing all bills and other requirements the previous day so when the family comes on the D-day they don’t have to do clearance with the office.

From there we then go through the night records so that we match what is in our admissions book with what is in our fridges.

From about 2:30pm/3:30pm, we begin to thaw the bodies which will be leaving for burial the next day and also receiving coffins and clothes from the families as they clear their bills with the office.

And by 4:30 pm our work is normally done. But there is always one of us on call at night just as I am tonight in case we may have to receive a body at night.

Why did you decide to be open about what you do on TikTok?

When I initially joined TikTok it was not about my work, I was just having fun. So when I finally put up my first post on what I do, it blew up and I was surprised that people are actually interested. But at the end of the day, what I’m aiming to do is to remove that misconception about death and the people who work in the mortuary.

Morticians are people just like you, many of us are sober and we even put on makeup and live normal lives. I may not remove that fear of death in people because it is very hard to do so but I choose to give people a little hope especially those who want to get into this profession, it is not work that should be done by mad people as we have come to believe. Mine is to encourage and to change that bad image created about morticians.

As we conclude our interview, I’m left with some strong words Ann stated: “When people are busy saying that I spend my time working with dead bodies, at the end of the day I go back home and I am proud when I look at how many people I was able to serve that day and I get a very high sense of fulfilment that I’ve served people and I’ve changed lives.

"And there is a very high level of satisfaction that comes from serving people well. Though we do not ask for death, the people we serve go out there and they refer us. They will remember that Ann served them so well and they will tell others about it," she explains.

Find Part 1 of Ann's story here.

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