How one question set me on the path to becoming a Mortician - the Ann Njoki story [Part 1]

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

Youth Mtaani: Mortician Ann Wanjiku Njoki's story

Thursday, 8 pm.

The voice on the other side is that of a very pleasant, friendly and almost unbelievably excited woman, which helps considering this journalist is about to ask more than she should of our guest's evening.

“It’s no problem! But could you give me about an hour, I’m expecting some people bringing in a body and they are about 20 minutes away. I’ll let you know once I’m back at my house,” she tells me.

Like clockwork, at 9 pm, Ann Wanjiku Njoki and I are settled and doing an interview for Pulse Youth Mtaani.

Ann is a Mortician by profession. She clarifies that there is a big difference between the work of a Pathologist and that of a Mortician...but more on that later.

She is the Mortician In-charge at the Pope Benedict XVI Hospital located in Nyahururu, Laikipia County and she is proud of the work she does.

Could you kindly introduce yourself and what you do?

My name is Ann Wanjiku Njoki, born and bred in Nakuru County and I’m in my mid twenties. Daughter of the late Agnes Njoki Munene. I’m a passionate writer and I love reading. People gravitate towards me, I don’t know why.

I’m currently based in Laikipia County at an institution called the Pope Benedict XVI Hospital Funeral Home where I am the Mortician In-charge.

How do people react when you tell them what you do for a living?

At first it is always excitement then they immediately go into shock and disbelief.

They expect a Mortician to be a man, they don’t believe a woman can do the work we do. Then remember that olden way of seeing people who work at the morgue looking disheveled and probably on drugs? That's what is expected of those in my profession. When they meet a well put-together lady they even assume I’m the secretary or receptionist.

How do you handle such a reaction?

When I’m on call especially during the night shift we normally have a vehicle and driver on standby in case I may have to receive a body at night. So in such instances, when the driver has picked me from my house and we arrive to find the clients waiting, they get shocked when they see me with the keys to the office. They even ask “...ni wewe tulikuwa tunangoja?”

The best thing is to just let them watch me do the work. You see, when they see you all geared up, getting the crane to lift the body and all that then they don’t have any questions left, they are all answered.

Is this what you wanted to do while growing up?

No. I was a normal child and as I grew up it was just like everyone else. By the way, I initially studied Cosmetology before I went back to school to become a mortician.

When my mother passed away in 2012, I remember when we went to pick her body, I noticed that she was all dolled up and she was looking so nice!

But I’d have rather had the Mortician who handled us at that time been a woman, because you know men are not so emotional beings. And he didn’t seem to know what to say or how to handle us because we were grieving so I thought he was very cold.

I’d say I got into this career out of curiosity. It was one question I asked myself on that day that eventually got me here.

At any funeral home, there is the area where mourners can hold a short service before collecting a body, there's the area where bodies are viewed and there are areas which can only be accessed by personnel. The question I asked myself is:- What happens behind the doors we were told we couldn’t go through? So I wanted to know what happens behind those closed doors.

Do you see yourself doing this (being a Mortician) for the rest of your life?

Absolutely not. I really love and enjoy my job as it is but you know because it is a very physically demanding job, I cannot do it when I’m old. So instead, I’d like to get into Counselling Psychology especially for grief.

I’ve learned, even through my personal journey after losing my mother, people need to be told that grieving is not a task, it is a process.

Even now, some of the people I serve later call me and they want to talk about their loss. Imagine someone you just interacted with for a very brief time calling and asking if it is normal to be crying about losing a loved one months and even years later! That’s why I say grief counselling is needed for many people and even children!

How did you know you were cut out for this job?

Allow me to say that being a Mortician requires one to have a lot of grace. No one should assume that they can just go through training and actually get into a cold room to work. Not everyone can do what we do and that’s why you find some Morticians have to take drugs to get through a day at work.

So, mine is actually a funny story, when I reported to my first duty station as a newly trained Mortician, I think my supervisor did not believe I’d last a day. The first thing he did is take me to the cold room and he opened a fridge to show me the body inside. He looked at me expecting me to flinch and I didn’t.

He then took me to a bench where there was a body, and I thought he would give me work right there but he was still checking if I’d be scared and I wasn’t.

Finally he showed me cadavers used by students to learn, this was an exciting part of the tour because I didn’t know that we are the ones who preserve them. At this point I think he was very shocked and wondered about this girl so excited to start working. He just sent me home and asked me to report back the next day. I don’t think he believed I would.

Does your work affect how you view life?

Of course it does! I’m a person who is reminded of death every single day! As I attend to the bodies I’m reminded of the aftermath of this short life. Death is death be it of the rich or the poor once you open the fridges they all look equal. The type of embalming done is similar so I learnt not to hold on to unnecessary things and let go easily be happy, because that's what really matters.

People who interact with me often tell me that I am unusual because I don't hold grudges. You may offend me today and tomorrow we'll be back to laughing together. I choose to let such things go and to move on, they are unnecessary.

Ann tells this journalist that there are other ways the job affects her view on life but she is more comfortable withholding those for now.

Editor's Note: This is Part 1 of our interview with Ann. Find discussions on Ann's family, correcting misconceptions on dead bodies, her day-to-day duties and much more in Part 2 here.

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