A day out with the Grim Reaper – Living face-to-face with death – Applying make-up to the dead

Emmanuel Kafe
DEATH is a debt owed by mankind — one that will always be paid in full.

Thousands of people die every day, and due to the myths surrounding death itself, many people cannot go near a corpse — yet mortality is the one thing that unites us all.

The dead, however, cannot take care of themselves — someone has to do it. That time from the moment somebody dies until they are buried is filled with hair-raising processes that most people are oblivious to.

On one hand, it is a process filled with grief and sadness for family and friends as they prepare to say goodbye to their loved one for the last time, yet on the other, it is an industry that handles tens of thousands of corpses per day the world over.

The Sunday Mail Society recently visited Chitungwiza General Hospital mortuary, to witness first-hand what it is like to live face-to-face with death every working day of one’s life. Our host, a local mortician, 33-year-old Ignatius Chatima, has spent 12 years working with the dead.

Chatima is the man who pieced together the body parts of victims of the Chitungwiza blast, which happened in Zengeza 2, a few years ago. Upon arrival at the mortuary, we quivered at the sight of dead bodies being cleansed but to him it looked like any other day at the office.

ABOVE: One of the morticians dresses a  dead body before embalming.
ABOVE: One of the morticians dresses a dead body before embalming.

Chatima chronicled how society views them as morticians.

From dealing in body parts to selling water used to wash corpses for ritual purposes — local morticians have been accused of it all — while some have even confessed to doing it.

“There is a lot of stigma in this job. People think that a person who washes the dead has some unusualness associated with them,” said Chatima, adding: “It takes the character of the individual to cope with what people say about you.”

Chatima says while he has heard about the selling of body parts and the water used to clean the corpses, he has not yet encountered it. However, he says when he first got the job his life became a living hell.

“I would have nightmares. Sometimes it would feel like someone was sleeping next to me. But as time went on  things normalised, especially after I got married,” said the father of two.

Talking of marriage, Chatima said getting a wife was no walk in the park for him. Every time he mentioned what he does for a living, the women would vanish from his life.

“Before I married my wife, I had two other girlfriends that I almost married. Everything would go smoothly until that moment I revealed that I was a mortician. Not even the lobola money would convince them that I was a suitable life partner,” revealed Chatima.

He ended up getting married to a workmate — a clerk at the same hospital — someone who understood his job. “I found that it is simpler to date someone who is a mortician or a nurse because they seem to understand and are over the whole eeriness of it. Most people are afraid of someone who does what I do. But I guess I have been lucky after all,” said Chatima.

Chatima’s wife of six years, Dorris Mupandasekwa, said life was “pretty normal”.

“It’s a pretty normal life at home and we understand each other, I married him knowing that he is a mortician,” she said.

Unlike the hangman’s job, which has been vacant for a while in Zimbabwe, morticians are being trained every day. For one to qualify for the mortician’s job, they need five O-Level passes including English and Science before undergoing some courses.

With all its disadvantages, how does one end up a mortician?

Said Chatima: “Every society needs someone to take care of the sick, the healthy and the injured. Every society needs someone to take care of the deceased, and that’s exactly what I am doing, what I was trained to do.”

As Chatima narrated his story, he went about his business in the mortuary — and it sent chills down the spine instantly making the skin crawl. He unpacked myths and misconceptions about what happens to a dead body behind closed doors in those final days before they are buried or cremated.

We witnessed first-hand the way corpses are stored awaiting identification, removal for autopsy and disposal by burial or cremation. For a day, we lived the lives of mortuary attendants and undertakers. Morticians are trained to embalm the deceased, cleaning the mortuary, washing the hearses, or even taking care of such matters as providing emotional support for the family of the deceased.

Chatima gave us a glimpse into what it is like to deal with issues of mortality on a daily basis. From the strangest requests he has ever had to deal with.

“In modern times, when someone dies, they are immediately refrigerated in cooling chambers to delay decomposition pending the time of burial. This, of course, is exclusive to Christians as Muslims waste no time in burying their dead,” he said.

He showed us the delicate process of preparing a body for burial or cremation, one which the family has the option to be heavily involved                                                                             in.

“We give them a bath, we wash their hair. If the family has any clothing they would like their loved one dressed in, we can dress them or place a funeral shroud over them.

“That is because at the last moment the family would like to see their loved one for one final goodbye and they can confidently open the coffin and know that their loved one was prepared in a respectable manner,” explained Chatima.

He said some relatives ask that we apply face powder and make-up on the deceased, we can do it.

“If it’s a male we can ask, if he was a clean-shaven gentlemen and we dress them according to their family’s wishes.”

The embalming room (where they clean and bath the deceased) itself is a tidy white room filled with scalpels, cosmetics and other tools of the trade. Morticians are usually the only ones in the room, which gives it an air of mystery to most people waiting to collect their relative.

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  • chatima me

    the mystery surrounding morticians gets deeper when the paper cuts out the face of the mortician in half