THE HUMAN BODY AND THE MEMORIES OF A MORTUARY.
The day my father’s dead body was carried from St Anthony Hospital, Aba, to Nkporo, his hometown; it was on a Friday morning in 2004. I didn’t go with them to the Mortuary. It was said that only the first son and the first Daughter and some grown up children of his should go to the Mortuary with some of his relatives. I was very young then. I could remember vividly that my step Brothers had made every arrangement in our compound in Aba. They hired three Mitsubishi buses. Two were Ohafia Mass Transit and one of the buses was from Abia Line Transportation Company. One of my uncles was a Driver in the Company, so, with his influence, they were able to give him one bus to ease the three hours journey from Aba to Nkporo in Ohafia Local Government Area of Abia state.
There were many questions i wanted to ask the elders then like why dead bodies are kept in the Mortuary, why dead bodies are preserved for months in the Mortuary before they could be buried and why so much money is spent preserving dead bodies instead of burying the person immediately he is confirmed dead but traditionally, I was ban from asking such questions. The Elders believed we were not old enough to know why some certain things have different shapes or they thought it might be dangerous to our sanity when we learn of some things which were above our age. I could remember when my Father was alive, as a polygamist, he had quietly said that whenever he dies, he shouldn’t be put to Mortuary. He joked about it almost all the time his friends came around in our Compound in Uvurueke. Each time they gathered in a round table to have a drink (usually dry gin), he would tell them how he would not like to be kept in a freezer like fishes, how he would not like to be kept in the fridge for weeks and months before he would be buried. It was his wish but what does a dead man knows about his remains? What does he know about his body after his death? Nothing! He can only wish this and that but when he’s no more, the living do what they wish to do to the only thing that is left of the dead man — good or bad.
I could remember that morning when father died and all his children gathered in our compound. The Eldest of all his sons who stayed in Aba was summoned immediately and he drove down with some of my step-Brothers and relatives who stayed in Aba too. They planned on how his body would be taken to the Mortuary. We, the younger children, were under the Avocado pear tree in the compound. Every where was silent. The only sound that was audible was the one made by the lizards that jumped from one tree to the other and some mourners who threw themselves on the ground singing in an unknown tunes. It was like a Nightmare to everyone of us. We cried and wailed as much as we could until our eyes were dried of the tears in its gland. We danced sorrowfully the little way we could and joined in the gloomy atmosphere with cheeks pressed against each other’s face.
My mother? — Her face appeared more furrowed than the last minutes I looked at her from the uncompleted building beside our house. I had watched her some minutes ago sang monotonously in an unknown tune from the window. She was wearing one of her old dresses stained with the sticky fluid of a plantain she cut the previous week. Maybe it was her age, maybe it was her grief, maybe it was her way of saying goodbye to her beloved husband, maybe it was her way of holding on to herself of her loss but the hair on my mother’s head was taking its time in growing back after she cut it because she said it was stressing her up. She said she wasn’t in control of herself carrying the hair amidst her sorrow — And I could see her scalp clearly through the grey strands — Unlike the former, the new growth was scanty and darker in colour.
When the Ambulance arrived, father’s body was carried out from the room, covered with a yellow wrapper mother had given to them, into the Ambulance and he was taken to the Mortuary against his wish. He was dead and a dead man does not know what has become of his body—beaten—damaged or rotten—It is the duty of those alive to complete the rites if they so wish or—they can decide to bury the dead body immediately he is confirmed dead.
Few days later, I took my time to scan our room with my eyes. Everything was exactly as it had been when my father was alive. Our bags, my mother’s wrappers on my father’s box made of Gold. He always prouded himself on how he got that box from Utu from a friend as a gift. My younger brother’s bicycle was parked in the room beside the bed. Father’s designer jumper was still hooked to a nail on the wall beside the door of our one room apartment. His bathroom slippers were arranged neatly at the foot of the bed, as if he were about to step right into them. The room still smelt like he was till laying on the bed. Then the smell of Izal which has taken control of the room. I hated the scent of the Izal mother used in cleaning the room every morning while father laid on the bed consumed by pains. On the floor of our room was a half-empty bottle of Old Spice aftershave lotion which was suppose to sit beside a half-empty Vaseline hair cream jar on his side of the dresser but was pushed down by one of the mourners.
Weeks after the Funeral, we had a family meeting where all the children, Relatives, brothers and sisters were gathered. We have all gathered to know how the properties he left behind could be shared among his children and to finalize on the money spent between my brothers and those they borrowed money from in other to make sure that all the debt incurred would be settled immediately. The elders deliberated on how the funeral went, the money spent and the money realised. We were amazed to hear the amount spent on the Mortuary bill for the few months his body was in there. It was a whole lots of experiences to me even though we were not given a chance to talk but I learnt a lot from the meeting so as others of my siblings.
When we returned to Aba, I went to see one elderly man that I was close to. There were many questions running through my mind. I asked him why human body has to be taken to the Mortuary and kept for days, weeks and months before it could be buried. He was amused. He looked at my young face and chuckled. Later, he patted me on the shoulder and said people keep their dead bodies in the Mortuary for different reasons. He said that Igbos particularly, keep dead bodies in the Mortuary so that the family members could gather some money to give the dead man or woman a befitting bury which is equal to his or her status in the society. And some people keep dead body bodies in the Mortuary for other family members to come around especially when those family members are living far from where their dead relative is based. Sometimes, when the eldest son and daughter are not around when their mother or father died, the body of their father and mother has to be kept in the Mortuary until they return home to see it, and then plan for his or her burial. He further explained that some people keep their dead relatives in the Mortuary because they don’t have money to bury the person immediately.He gave me many reasons why many people preferred to put dead relatives in mortuary for months before they could gather themselves together to bury the said person. It was an eye opener.
Although right from my childhood after the encounter with that old man, I have a different opinions about the dead. We were told that it is bad to speak evil of the dead but I always have this opinion that a dead man is a dead man and should be buried immediately he is confirmed dead. Maybe the funeral can be arranged after he has been buried instead of putting him in mortuary for months and spending a huge amount of money paying for the Mortuary bills. At the end of the day, you won’t recognize the body again. the dead body may have taken a different shape and colour after being kept in the Mortuary for months. He becomes as sticky and frozen as a fish. Yet, he is going to the same place he was supposed to go after all. People may have a different view based on the subject matter as perspective and opinion differs when it comes to a matter like this. Basically, in relationship to some traditions and cultures, some set of people can’t allow their dead relative to be buried without proper preparation about the funeral rites and all but the bottom line is, a dead man is a dead man, whether buried immediately, after or kept for years in the Mortuary; nothing changes the fact that he is dead — it may not matter how he is buried or how much money is spent on his burial ceremony. He is blind to all these things. The most concerned people should be the living, those he left behind should be cared for at all cost.
Aside from some family issues that may arise in the process of burying a dead man without the knowledge of some Important people in the family. The preservation of a dead body in the Mortuary is of no use when it can be put to the ground while other necessary preparations can be made based on the befitting burial. Hence, one can not condemn the act in any way since it has been culturally and traditionally accepted by some cultures. However, this preservation and embalment of dead bodies may be subjective to the circumstances surrounding the dead person. I have seen that in most cases, it is not usually easy to just bury a man or woman like that when he or she has people who would likely want to have a last look on their dead mother, father, siblings and relatives for the last time before he/she could be buried. I have seen chaos in a family where their dead father was buried before the first son came back. When he returned after two days his father was buried, there was war in the family. He asked those people who buried his father to bring him out from the grave else, there will be war. And he meant it real good.
When a man is dead, he knows nothing again. He has no idea who visited the family to mourn him. He has no idea who didn’t visit. He has no idea whether he was put to Mortuary or not, he’s dead and gone forever. What is left for the living are memories— terror, happy, sad and joyful memories — No feeling is final.
©John Chizoba Vincents