Death is said to be the end of existence; it is to be nothing but a lifeless entity in a box that is put six feet under the ground. It is a state of nothingness. Before the body is buried, there is one important step, which is the visitation to a mortuary.
A mortuary is a room or building in which dead bodies are kept for hygienic storage or examination until burial or cremation. It is the last place the deceased will ever visit before being buried, and possibly the last place the deceased will be touched by another human being.
One may ask, what goes on in the mind of the person that is tasked with handling the deceased? Alexander Mukulalwendo is a Mortuary Attendant of 2 years whose path to the mortuary arts was paved with curiosity, a hunger for knowledge, and a passion for the human anatomy.
Mukulalwendo always had a deep-rooted fascination with science and mathematics which led him to question the biological processes behind preserving the human body and preventing decomposition. Driven by this desire to learn, he immersed himself in independent research, searching the Internet and looking for books to expand his understanding of mortuary practices.
He later joined a funeral company where he was placed under a different department but eventually witnessed an embalming process first-hand, and thereafter, approached the head of the mortuary department with a humble request to learn and become a mortician, subsequently permission was granted. As he learnt more, a new world unfolded before his eyes, the questions that had fuelled his curiosity found answers but also sparked new ones.
“After I saw my first embalming process, I began asking more questions and the head of the mortuary department saw my interest and allowed me to make a formal request to start learning the practical aspect of mortuary arts,” Mukulalwendo says.
The mortician notes that he now has various responsibilities which include embalming, accurately inspecting each body, and recording essential information such as the deceased’s name, next of kin, and cause of death which facilitates the smooth handover of bodies to grieving families, whether for burial or transfer to another location. He additionally, monitors the temperature of the morgue refrigerator to maintain a delicate balance between preventing decomposition and avoiding excessively cold conditions for the corpses.
As with any job, there is also an emotional weight that comes with the profession. Mukulalwendo says he approaches his work with a unique perspective that helps him handle this emotional weight. He firmly believes that the work of a mortician is no different from any other profession within the medical field because if they do not do the work, then who will do it?
He states that the emotional stress of his job can be overcome by resting, taking regular breaks and spending time with family. His job gives him a sense of fulfilment as he feels as though he is a doctor in his own right.
“I do something unique and I am satisfied with what I do, I keep learning every day which gives me a sense of satisfaction because I do believe I am somewhat of a doctor,” the mortician says.
However, in a country like Zambia, the societal stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding his job persist. Mukulalwendo states that there are various false fallacies about his job that people often claim, but states that they are only misconceptions and not reality. He is otherwise unbothered about what people think of his career.
“The misconceptions about my job are only myths and not reality, some people say that you need charms to be a mortician, or that we dream about dead people, this is false, and such misconceptions do not bother me. I sleep peacefully,” he admits.
The mortuary attendant says that by sharing his experiences and emphasizing the importance of his profession, he is challenging societal norms and reshaping people’s perceptions about the stigma of working in a mortuary which exists because of the way people in the country are brought up.
Mukulalwendo also adds that his time spent at his job has given him a perspective which is that death does not discriminate regardless of status or background. Witnessing individuals from all walks of life find their final resting place has also made him question the legacy he will leave behind while also making him contemplate the significance of life before and after death.
“Death does not choose, irrespective of status or anything, I have seen countless people dying and because of that, I wonder how I ought to live before I die, and also what is after death, because at the end I am also going,” he says.
However, while exploring the world of morticians and their deep connection to death, it is interesting to encounter individuals like Mumba Chisala, who plays a unique role in the funeral industry as he offers his services by providing hearses for funerals.
Chisala states that although it may seem like an unpractical job, he gains a sense of satisfaction from it as he contributes to the final journey of the departed.
“I feel happy to be able to help those who have passed on to reach their place of burial, it is fulfilling for me,” he says.
Although death often remains an uncomfortable topic with mystery and fear, the mortuary as well as other funeral services give us a profound reflection of life and death. The fascinating work done by these individuals brings comfort to grieving hearts and honours the undeniable truth that in the end, everyone will die.