Visit your mortuary


Death is always a difficult topic. Yet, it is the inevitable end of all of us. Death is part of life’s journey built together in units of time. But today let’s challenge ourselves a bit with what happens immediately after death. Over the past few years I have on a couple of occasions had cause to visit a loved one in a mortuary immediately after death, and those memories have hounded me. The trauma and anxiety of death in the family is intense and excruciating, but having to see a loved one in the sordid conditions we refer to as mortuaries in Nigeria makes it exponentially worse – believe me – you will never forget when you visit one.

This piece in the Daily Champion provided a reminder, describing the conditions at Isolo General Hospital Mortuary in Lagos where, in addition to the sordid conditions, mass burials of unidentified and unclaimed corpses occur regularly because facilities cannot hold and preserve the numerous corpses, that are depostied there for up to 20 a day. The piece also reminds of the incredibly powerful words of Nelson Mandela;

“one can tell how a country treats its citizens by looking at the way it treats its prisoners.”

In addition to deaths from apparently natural causes, there are the reports of increasing executions of “armed robbers” by our law enforcement agencies. In a December 2009 report on the BBC, the chief medical director of the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital; Dr Anthony Mbah, said ;

Our  mortuary is overflowing – with corpses brought in by the police.

“We have between 70 and 80 bodies right now… and about three weeks ago, there was a mass burial of some other corpses,” he said.

I think back to the heroic death of Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe‘s epic “Things Fall Apart”  – a warrior who identified with his people, and a symbol of the tragic demise of a great people. I wonder about the extra pain it would have caused to his people if he had to been kept for weeks in the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital Mortuary – one of the “benefits” of the modernisation our societies have gone through since his times. What a paradox of development…

Please find the courage to visit your local mortuary. Engage with its challenges. If you don’t, nobody will and one day we will all end up there. Painful but inevitable.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has…Margaret Mead

Chikwe Ihekweazu is an epidemiologist and consultant public health physician. He is the Editor of Nigeria Health Watch, and the Managing Partner of EpiAfric (, which provides expertise in public health research and advisory services, health communication and professional development. He previously held leadership roles at the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the UK's Health Protection Agency. Chikwe has undertaken several short term consultancies for the World Health Organisation, mainly in response to major outbreaks. He is a TED Fellow and co-curator of TEDxEuston.

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