Daily Trust (Abuja)

9 February 2013

Nigeria: Unclaimed Corpses, Sharp Practices Stifle Abuja Mortuaries

Penultimate Friday, a journalist residing at Abuja noticed that his mother who was sleeping peacefully suddenly began to grasp for breathe and he rushed her to Asokoro District Hospital.

On getting to the place, a male nurse from the emergency unit was informed of the situation and he went to check on the patient's condition inside a car before sending for a doctor, who arrived shortly. The doctor on getting to the scene told the nurse that the hospital's present rules was for all patient's to be brought into the hospital for such checking but the nurse informed her to bend the rules. The doctor checked the woman inside the car, pronounced her dead and asked that a policeman be brought to endorse the patient's file before a report can be written in the patient's file that can have her signature.

Appeals by the journalist to have his mother put on a bed inside the hospital until he came with policemen fell on deaf ears and he later left the corpse inside his car for about two hours, before returning with two police officers, who endorsed his late mother's file.

After the process, the corpse was taken to the mortuary section where an attendant at first refused to accept it because the place was filled with corpses. The attendant only changed his mind when he was told that the deceased was a Muslim and the corpse will be removed before 9 am for burial rites.

"Please don't fail to come as my superiors will be annoyed with me for accepting a corpse because the place is filled," the attendant said.

Another family who were Christians equally appeared stranded as they had a corpse inside a car in the early hours of the morning and did not have the amount demanded by the attendant to keep the corpse.

The attendant had demanded N23,000 for embalmment and N500 per day for the family to keep the corpse in the mortuary for two weeks.

The journalist kept to his word by coming with an ambulance to collect his mother's corpse at the appointed time but met a mean looking attendant, who demanded for N1,000 for the corpse not to be maltreated as it is being brought out of the mortuary.

In a past newspaper interview, Barrister Nnaemeka Ejiofor, an Abuja based Human Rights lawyer, said he went with one Martin Eze, a client of his to search for a his dead relations at a mortuary in Abuja and was almost choked by the smell of strong chemicals from the place.

He said they were made to search for the corpse and had to pass a room with bodies lying everywhere.

"Some had heavy metals holding their jaws from dropping, while some were tied on both legs. The sight at the opposite room was more horrific as so many lifeless naked bodies were scattered everywhere on the floor with some put on top of others due to lack of space in the refrigerated chambers," the lawyer said.

He said one of the corpses had a rope tied round the neck, adding that when he inquired about the rope, the attendant told him it was a suicide case.

According to the lawyer, the condition of the place appeared unhygienic as there were tiny insects and house flies flying around as well as perching on corpses.

Investigation by Weekly Trust in other public mortuaries in Abuja, shows that against SERVICOM's instruction, no price list exist in such places stating amounts to be paid for services, rather attendants tell deceased persons' families what to pay to the hospitals cashier and themselves.

Our reporter, who met the head of mortuary attendants in one of the public hospitals Wednesday, was told that to keep a corpse for a day is N500, while embalmment depends on the corpse. "Bring the corpse first so that we negotiate", he requested.

Presently such mortuaries are filled with unclaimed and accident victims' corpses with some placed on the bare floor due to lack of spaces.

Hospital sources said most of such corpses were deposited by policemen, whose full identities could not be ascertained as they only filled first names or gave fake names.

Others are those still being investigated in murder cases, robbery suspects as well as corpses abandoned by relatives due to lack of money for funeral ceremonies.

At Maitama District Hospital, a time frame is always given for unclaimed corpses to be removed before adverts are placed in newspapers by the hospital's management carrying the identities of the corpses with specific warnings that they will be given mass burials after a certain period.

Families who deposited corpses for a long time in order to gather resources to organize burial ceremonies pass through harrowing experiences of going through bodies to identify their own. A family member said he was shocked to see his brother's corpse decomposing when he collected it after a few months.

The genesis of overcrowded public mortuaries at the Abuja city centre could be traced to lack of mortuary facilities by general hospitals located at satellite towns in the FCT, a development that is being addresses urgently by the FCT Health Secretariat.

For instance, accidents victims that die along Abuja- Lokoja road are normally rushed by officials of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) to ether the University of Abuja Teaching Hospital's mortuary due to lack of such facility at general hospitals in Kwali and Abaji.

An FRSC official in the past, Uba Hassan, had advocated for the establishment of a national mortuary in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) for accident victims, adding that it should also accommodate victims of natural disasters, when they occur.

Families of deceased persons spoken to called on the FCT authorities to ensure that only honest people are employed as mortuary attendants to stop corruption in such places. "We hear rumours that water used to bath corpses as well as human parts is used to make fast money and this is why government should investigate those doing such jobs," Mrs Alice Effiong said.

She said hospital authorities can make good money if they operate ambulance services. "When I lost a relative and needed an ambulance to convey the corpse from Abuja to Akwa Ibom State, it was a mortuary attendant that contacted a driver of such vehicle, who charged me N80,000 and the attendant got his cut.

Mortuary attendants in Abuja however denied allegations of selling human parts or water collected from washed corpses and criticized long preservation of corpses by families. "The best period to preserve a corpse is for two weeks and we need government's directive to decongest mortuaries after such period," an attendant said.

Reacting, Head, Public Relations FCT Health & Human Services Secretariat, Badaru Salisu Yakasai, said the reason for congestion in FCT public mortuaries is due to the increasing number of unclaimed bodies that are brought there by the Nigerian Police and FRSC as a result of accidents.

He said the disposal of unclaimed corpses through mass burial requires a process that involves police investigations and the court, among others.

"It is also worthy to note that 90 percent of private hospitals in the FCT do not have mortuaries and corpses are brought from these hospitals to be deposited in FCTA hospitals, which further contributes to the congestion problem so witnessed. It has also be observed that corpses are brought in from neighboring states like Nasarawa and Kaduna States to FCT for deposit and embalmment because of the quality of services offered by FCTA mortuaries," he added.

The spokesman informed that FCT districts and general hospitals have standard and well equipped mortuaries, excluding Nyanya General Hospital which is presently under construction.

According to him, each mortuary has price charges displayed at the entrance of the place and money is paid to a cashier, who remits same to the hospital's authorities. "The mortician neither handles money paid for embalmment nor money paid for depositing corpses," Yakasai said.

He said at the moment, there is general renovation and procurement of additional morgue in all the city and satellite hospitals, adding that there is an additional morgue awaiting installation at Asokoro District hospital.

The FCT example appears similar to that of Lagos State, where their state government is planning cremation for unclaimed corpses. Avoseh Hodewu Suru, a member of Lagos State House of Assembly and Chairman House Committee on Health in a bill he sponsored seeking to legalise voluntary cremation and unclaimed corpses in the state, said legislative members visited mortuaries in the state and met them in devastating conditions with a lot of decomposed unclaimed corpses.

He said findings showed that mortuary workers were not aware that the health reform law allows for mass burial every six week for unclaimed corpses, adding that communities refused to allow for mass burial during the day.

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