DUMPSITE FOR THE DEAD

Dead pile up in City Mortuary: Five bodies packed in space for one

As the cheapest and most accommodating facility, it harbours victims of everything from murder to accidents, many brought by police and remaining long unidentified

In Summary

• There are currently 273 unclaimed bodies in Nairobi's mortuaries, including 172 in City Mortuary as of September 2

• In about five months, City Mortuary and Kenyatta National Hospital mortuary disposed of over 1,500 unclaimed bodies

Nairobi City mortuary
Nairobi City mortuary
Image: ENOS TECHE

City Mortuary receives more than 10 bodies daily, most of which have decomposed. 

The 63-year-old morgue located on the junction of Ngong’ Road and Mbagathi Way should handle 176 bodies. However, it currently holds more than 300 corpses.

With about 28 attendants and eight clerical officers, its employees say they are overstretched. 

 
 
 
 
 
 

“We find that the police bring in decomposed bodies that have been discovered from houses after a while," an employee speaking on condition of anonymity told the Star. 

"In other cases, you find the body had been missing for days and later recovered from a river or forest."

They can’t turn away those who take bodies to the facility, even when the numbers are overwhelming.

“Many people prefer the mortuary because it is the cheapest in the city, and private facilities rarely admit bodies in worse conditions,” he said.

The unclaimed bodies, therefore, pile up.

An attendant said, “Once a body gets into the morgue, we first charge Sh500 per day until the family of the deceased pick up the body for burial, and then Sh3,000 for funeral preparations, unless the family wishes to transfer.” 

“Also, when the police find out that the individual was murdered or died mysteriously, the body has to stay in the morgue until they are done with their investigations.”

 
 
 
 

Only three morgue attendants receive bodies at night.

City Mortuary is 80 per cent owned by the government and is one of the biggest city-based morgues in East Africa. 

In a city with a population of more than four million people, it is the only public funeral parlor in Nairobi.

Kenyatta University Funeral home has a capacity of 22 bodies, Lee Funeral Home 12 and Chiromo Funeral Parlor 120.

On July 19, Nairobi county said it will dispose of 23 unidentified bodies of victims of thugs, accidents, mob justice or suicide.

The bodies have spent months at City Mortuary without identification from friends or family. 

 
 
One cabinet should hold one body. But that is not the case here. There is nothing we can do, this being the only public mortuary and it is cheap
City Mortuary attendant

SEARCH FOR MISSING RELATIVE

For Damaris* (not her real name), the search for her sister has been emotionally exhausting. Amid tears, she describes how she had lost all hope of ever seeing her sister dead or alive. 

"My sister was such a sweet soul, so full of life and caring. We were very close and we would regularly talk just to update each other on our well-being," she said. 

The two sisters lived in the same town but in different parts, and visits during the weekend were not uncommon. 

"Since we had to hustle during the week, we would arrange to visit each other on weekends so we could catch up or go to church together on Sunday," Damaris said. 

At first, it was the calls that stopped. Then she failed to visit during the weekend. 

"I had called her several times that week but her phone didn't go through. I assumed something may have been wrong with the phone and decided to wait on her until the weekend. I was sure she would come and see me," she said. 

However, when her sister didn't show up, her worry grew. Being the elder of the two, she decided to visit her sister's house and check up on her. 

"Her door was locked and her neighbour told me she hadn't seen her for a few days. My heart dropped because this was very unusual. She would always tell me if she was travelling away or would not be able to make it to my home," Damaris said. 

The quest to find her sister started with a trip to hospitals to check if she had fallen ill or worse, died. However, she couldn't find her anywhere. 

"I also called her friends and our other family to see if they had seen her but got nothing. It's like she had just vanished," she said. 

Damaris then decided to make the painful decision and assume her sister was dead. 

"It was hard to begin that search but it was better than not knowing. So I started going to funeral homes," she said. 

When she went to City Mortuary, she didn't find her sister. "It changes you, the uncertainty really takes a toll on you," she said.

After a while, she decided to look again. Maybe someone had found her. 

"I finally located her body at City Mortuary. It was the worst day of my life. I cried until I fainted. I hate that day," she said. 

Damaris is yet to get answers on what happened to her sister. 

A City Mortuary attendant.
A City Mortuary attendant.
Image: FILE
I finally located her body at City Mortuary. It was the worst day of my life. I cried until I fainted. I hate that day
Damaris*

APPEAL TO COLLECT

In 2016, City Mortuary received 4,115 bodies, in 2017, 4,025, and in 2018, 2,018.

On the other hand, Mbagathi Hospital has 97 unidentified and unclaimed bodies. It has appealed for the collection of the 56 male and 41 female bodies.

The bodies have been unclaimed since April 2017, when the morgue received 12 bodies. Seventy bodies were delivered in 2018 and 15 more this year.

Back in 2006, City Mortuary and Kenyatta National Hospital Mortuary raised concerns than many bodies lay unclaimed over long periods of time.

Both mortuaries disposed of more than 1,500 unclaimed bodies in a span of five months. They lost Sh5 million in mortuary fees.

Between 2003 and 2006, City Mortuary disposed of 2,500 unclaimed bodies. The number at Kenyatta was more than 3,000.

The Star could not obtain comments from city officials as they did not answer calls or reply to text messages.

Haki Africa executive director Hussein Khalid told the Star City Mortuary is an old house with poor planning of space. The fridges are also old and break down from time to time.

“The morgue still has not gone digital in their record keeping. This can easily lead to a mix-up of bodies and distortion of records," he said.

"Staff at the facility are poorly remunerated and disregarded by the authorities. Their morale is low and due to this, they serve the public poorly."

Khalid adds the facility is unkempt, with dirty corridors and untidy lawns. 

The fridges are rarely washed and remain dirty always,” he said.

The morgue still has not gone digital in their record keeping. This can easily lead to a mix-up of bodies and distortion of records
Haki Africa executive director Hussein Khalid

ARRIVAL AND PRESERVATION 

Once an unidentified body arrives, police register it at the gate and another registration is conducted before it is issued with an identification tag.

Fingerprints are taken and submitted to the registration bureau for identification. DNA samples are used if the body is burnt beyond recognition.

The information obtained is forwarded to the chief or sub-chief of the person’s home area so they break the news to his or her family.

If the police fail to trace the family, the management will be given three months to preserve the body.

The police will then seek a court order allowing for the deceased’s burial at Lang’ata cemetery.

In cases where a family cannot meet costs and allows the facility to keep a body, the management seeks a go-ahead from court to bury it. If they are many, they are interred in a mass grave to free space. 

In cases like the 1998 bomb blast, over 200 bodies arrived. We could not tell them that the mortuary is full. They had to be held here
City Mortuary attendant

Once a body arrives, it is washed with a disinfectant solution. The solution may contain glutaraldehyde, methanol, ethanol, phenol, water and dyes.

Limbs are massaged to relieve the stiffening of the joints and muscles.

Any necessary shaving and embalming (treating to delay decomposition) would also take place. Embalming costs Sh2,500.

Attendants say this is to make the body appear as lifelike as possible. During the process, blood is drained and replaced with formaldehyde-based chemicals. After that, the body is preserved in a fridge.

One fridge has four cabinets, each holding five people.

“One cabinet should hold one body. But that is not the case here. There is nothing we can do, this being the only public mortuary and it is cheap,” the employee said.

“In cases like the 1998 bomb blast, over 200 bodies arrived. We could not tell them that the mortuary is full. They had to be held here.”

He said bodies that are not preserved in the freezer are preserved with formalin. A small incision is made in the lower part of the belly and a trocar (a sharp surgical instrument) is inserted into the body cavity.

The organs in the chest cavity and the abdomen are punctured and drained of gas and fluid.

Formaldehyde-based chemicals are subsequently injected. Once the incision is sutured, the body is fully embalmed.

Cosmetics are then applied. Hair is washed and set according to family preferences.

When the body is set for departure, it is dressed. The family provides the clothing. It is finally placed in a coffin, ready for a requiem mass or burial.

There are five cemeteries in Nairobi under the Nairobi county government. They are: Lang’ata, Forest road, Citypark, Southland and Commonwealth cemeteries.

Edited by Tom Jalio