By Adedotun Ajayi
In many civilizations, traditions and religions, both ancient and modern, death is a mere transitional phase between one stage of life and another. The Holy Scripture says, “There is a time to be born and a time to die.” This saying reminds everyone of our mortality and the debt we all have to pay.
Burying the dead is one way to ensure that they are accorded dignity and respect and that the feelings of their living loved ones are considered. Throughout history, religions, traditions and cultural practices have influenced the ways in which the dead are managed both in times of peace and conflict.
Death does not end human suffering, especially when death is sudden, as a result of a disaster. The death of a loved one leaves an indelible mark on the survivors, and unfortunately, the families of the deceased suffer additional harm because of the inadequate way that the bodies of the dead are handled. These secondary injuries are unacceptable, particularly if they are the consequence of direct authorization or action on the part of the authorities or those responsible for humanitarian assistance.
The State has a critical role in standardizing and guiding the tasks of handling dead bodies (recovery, identification, transfer, and final disposal), ensuring that legal norms are followed, and guaranteeing that the dignity of the deceased and their families are respected in accordance with their cultural values and religious beliefs.
Last year November, there were reports of hundreds of corpses in various stages of decomposition littering the corridors of the mortuary in Ore. It was learnt from visitors to the public hospital that bodies of men and women were openly placed on corridors where they were beaten by rain.
Horrifying photos and videos of the mortuary surroundings obtained by newsmen showed some bodies were on the pathways, while a few were covered with iron sheets. Concrete blocks were used to demarcate the placements of some of the cadavers. Inside a room that appeared like an office, corpses of many people, including women, were put on the floor. Two standing corpses in the room had become skeletons. It was observed that the mortuary had two small generators kept in a shade. A source, who visited to collect the remains of a neighbour, lamented the condition of the mortuary.
He noted that the facility lacked proper embalming tools adding that the morticians said the general hospital need funds to function.
“My neighbor died in an accident while coming to Lagos and his remains were brought to the mortuary by officials of the Federal Road Safety Corps.
“We came here to pick the body and what we saw was unbelievable. The corpses are just too many. Those washing them said they could number close to 300 and they were abandoned by their families for more than a year. They only embalm them on the floor so that they will not smell,” the source said.
Another visitor said there was an uncompleted building where another set of corpses were kept. He explained that the mortuary workers said the hospital was planning a mass burial for some of them
“A relative of mine died and his body was deposited here. I was called to come and see where his corpse was kept.
“As I was walking to the mortuary, someone called my attention to the bodies on the floor and that I was beginning to step on them. I was in shock.
“Some of the bodies are where sun and rain beat them. Some are covered with clothes and others with iron sheets. A wrapper they probably got from an accident scene was used to cover a few others. The bodies are not fresh. They are becoming rotten on the floor where they are kept. It is not a good experience at all,” he added.
The former Ondo State Commissioner for Health, Ajibayo Adeyeye while operating on this issue, said workers at the hospital were overwhelmed due to the amount of bodies brought to the mortuary.
He said, “I was also at the place and I was confronted with the same situation. We are aware of it. The problem as a result of the location of the hospital; it is close to the highway. A lot of accident victims get dumped in the hospital. You’ll find a situation where the police just bring corpses, drop them and go away.
“Corpses that are products of accidents are coroner cases. That means they cannot be buried without an autopsy or the police bringing an order of the court.
“In the midst of the hospital coping with people that are still alive, the workers easily get overwhelmed by these corpses. However, we have been appealing to the police authorities to take care of their cases so that the bodies can be buried.”
Adeyeye said conducting a mass burial was also challenging due to the problem of getting land without resistance from people who owned land in the area.
He noted that the state might create a crematorium to deal with the situation.
Reacting to this, Ayodeji Ayanleye, a public health educator said, “In a situation like this, I’ll say there’s no dignity for the dead in Nigeria if the family of the deceased don’t monitor their corpse by themselves. Naturally corpses ought to be stored in cooling compartments to preserve them until burial. But the facilities are either overstretched or the freezers have broken down or they do not work for enough hours because of irregular electricity. Looking at the numbers of people that die everyday in this country, you will definitely understand where I’m coming from, the facilities are not enough for the casualties, It is usually the same story across Nigeria, either electricity problem or another and the main concern here is that if corpses are not well preserved, it could spark a wave of epidemic in a community with potential spread to other areas, this is a case of urgency”
Dr Simon Owolabi, a sociologist at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, in his contribution said, “When you are traveling in Nigeria, and you notice and look round, you will see one or two dead bodies on highways, that would be left on the road for days before any proper action is taken, most times these dead bodies are corpses of mad men who barely have anyone looking for them, either ways they are still rightful citizens of this country, and their bodies should be treated with dignity, the rate at which people die in this country is alarming, I think the facilities are not enough. I’m sure people in that sector are doing their job effectively. The government should intervene in this situation before it gets out of hand.”