The dead must be treated decently

The recent disappearance of the corpse of an 86-year-old man from the mortuary of the Sacred Heart Hospital Mortuary, Lantoro, Abeokuta, Ogun State capital, is embarrassing. Son and other relatives of the deceased were shocked when they arrived at the mortuary with a hearse and could not find the body to take home for burial. But this is not an isolated incident. Earlier in January this year, the corpse of a woman was missing at the mortuary of the Olabisi Onabanjo University Teaching Hospital (OOUTH), Sagamu, Ogun State. In November 2021, there was confusion at the Bingham University Teaching Hospital, (BUTH) mortuary in Jos, Plateau State, when relatives could not find the remains of a 33-year-old man. 

 In a country where things are difficult for the living, the dead also can no longer ‘rest in peace’. From ritual and occult practices to trade in organs, various reasons have been advanced for the eerie incidents of disappearing corpses in our mortuaries. But these are gross violations of the law. Section 242 of the Criminal Code Act in Nigeria stipulates an imprisonment of two years for anybody liable for anything that “offers any indignity to any dead human body or human remains, whether buried or not,” among others.

Particularly worrisome is that there are several cases across the country where corpses are abandoned in some mortuary grounds to decompose, ostensibly because they are marked as unclaimed. There was a bizarre report from Odigbo Local Government Area of Ondo State, where corpses of men and women in various stages of decomposition littered the corridors of the mortuary of the General Hospital. Naturally, these bodies 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. It is usually the same story across Nigeria.

 Ore, a popular town, and rest point on the Sagamu-Benin Expressway, has a standard public hospital with a mortuary, which obviously was not built with an uncontrollable high number of dead accident victims in mind. The mortuary is inundated with putrid unclaimed bodies, some stripped to the bones, while others are covered with roofing sheets to maintain whatever dignity they have left. There is an argument that unclaimed corpses should be given mass burial, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) does not support such idea because it could traumatise families with serious social and legal consequences.

 WHO’s regulation on the management of unclaimed corpses states that bodies should be collected and photographed as soon as possible, and preferably before decomposition has commenced. Basic information about a dead body is also recommended to be collected before it is temporarily stored for protection and to assist in possible identification. To keep track of this information, the body needs to be given a unique code. Such information must also be attached to the body and the body bag, and any burial site, so that its location can be recorded, and the body retrieved at any time. In a country where little attention is paid to the living, it is too much to expect such diligence for the dead.

Meanwhile, it is important for the government at all levels to improve the carrying capacity of health facilities to save lives and to preserve the bodies of people who die from diseases or accidents. We also hope that the Ondo State government will fulfill its promise to manage the decaying corpses at the Ore hospital and rehabilitate the mortuary. It may be important to expand it, considering the large number of dead accident victims it receives daily.

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