- 65-year-old City Mortuary's standing in the “business of the dead” has come under increasing threat from Johnny-come-lately private funeral homes.
- To exacerbate matters, the private funeral homes have also been given the leeway to issue burial permits, further strengthening their attractiveness amongst the masses.
- Also eating into the revenue basket of the mortuary is the issue of unclaimed bodies.
City Mortuary stands out as the oldest morgue in Nairobi that in its heydays used to be the go-to facility in the capital city and its environs.
The 65-year-old mortuary, on the junction of Ngong’ Road and Mbagathi Way, has enjoyed decades of dominance as one of the biggest city-based facility in East Africa, serving a population of more than five million people.
However, its standing in the “business of the dead” has come under increasing threat from Johnny-come-lately private funeral homes that constantly nibble at its stranglehold; one death at a time.
This has put the mortuary under pressure as the private funeral homes coupled with increasing numbers of unclaimed bodies eats into its business.
Head of City Mortuary David Wanjohi explains that even as late as 1993 when he joined the government-owned funeral parlour as a morgue attendant, they used to receive at least 30 bodies daily.
But this trend has been changing as new funeral homes gradually eat into what was once its catchment area.
“We would get like 30 bodies a day. They could not fit in our fridges and they would be all over on the floor. We would only preserve those we could and others would be forced to find alternative mortuaries or bury as fast as possible,” recounts Mr Wanjohi.
“Currently, we average like five bodies a day in the public wing and two in the private wing. This as many people nowadays prefer the private funeral homes,” he adds.
Lee Funeral Home, Montezuma Monalisa Funeral Homes, Umash Funeral Home, Kenyatta University Funeral Home, Chiromo Funeral Parlour run by the University of Nairobi, Zion Funeral Services, Perozie Funeral Services, Lona Funeral Services, Omega Funeral Home and Services, and Janam Funeral Services are some of the private funeral homes threatening the ‘King of the Jungle's' reign, scheming to topple it from the perch it has enjoyed for more than six decades.
Kenyatta University Funeral home can accommodate 22 bodies, Lee Funeral Home 12 and Chiromo Funeral Parlour 120.
“Western people who used to preserve their bodies here or Chiromo nowadays use KU Funeral Home because it is easily accessible through the bypass. The same funeral home together with Montezuma in Kabati, Murang’a is also serving most of the population in Central,” he explains.
To put this into perspective, in 2016, City Mortuary received 4,115 bodies, in 2017 the numbers dropped to 4,025, and the decline nose-dived further in 2018 where only 2,018 bodies were received.
To exacerbate matters, the private funeral homes have also been given the leeway to issue burial permits, further strengthening their attractiveness amongst the masses.
Mr Wanjohi explains that in the past, such a permit would not be issued without any body being first received by City Mortuary.
“All bodies in Nairobi used to be brought here first. Even Chiromo would not receive a body without a burial permit from City Mortuary. The body would be brought here, post mortem done, permit issued and it is then that an individual was allowed to go to other places,” he states.
Subsequently, the leeway to let private funeral homes have the licence to issue burial permits has seen revenue for the mortuary dwindle.
When a body is taken to the mortuary, a charge of Sh500 per day applies until the family of the deceased picks up the body for burial. This is in addition to Sh3,000 for funeral preparations.
“Embalming, treating to delay decomposition, is charged Sh2,800, post-mortem exam Sh2,500 plus the charges for the days spent at the mortuary which has nowadays been standardised at Sh500,” he says.
Collection at the mortuary has been erratic and between February and August this year, for instance, City Mortuary collected Sh23 million helped in part by increased deaths in the country as well as restrictions of movement imposed by the government due to Covid-19 pandemic.
In February Sh2.7 million was realised by the mortuary.
This then increased to Sh4.6 million when the morgue received 171 bodies but dipped slightly to Sh4.1 million in April from 173 bodies.
The collection in May was Sh2.7 million from 124 bodies, June (Sh2.2 million) from 138 bodies, July (Sh3.1 million) from 192 bodies and in August the facility recorded Sh3.68 million.
“In March and April, we got increased revenue because of the restrictions of movement that forced most people to bury their loved ones in Lang’ata cemetery,” asserts Mr Wanjohi.
During the restrictions of movement, individuals were required to present an original burial permit, letter signed and stamped by area OCS, another by area chief, typed application letters to transport a body or attend a funeral outside a county that had restriction of movement.
Further, the number of individuals wishing to travel with the deceased were also capped forcing many people to opt to bury their kin in public cemeteries.
Also eating into the revenue basket of the mortuary is the issue of unclaimed bodies with Mr Wanjohi saying that sometimes as much as half of the bodies are unclaimed destined for mass grave.
“They occupy space that would have been used by a body that will be paid for. We also have to cater for their burial in terms of fuel for transportation, purchasing body bags, chemicals used to preserve the body, among other expenses. We spend our money yet we get no returns,” he points out.
In a span of five months in 2006, City Mortuary and KNH Funeral Home disposed more than 1,500 unclaimed bodies losing Sh5 million in mortuary fees.
Between 2003 and 2006, City Mortuary disposed 2,500 unclaimed bodies and KNH more than 3,000. City Mortuary plans to dispose another 147 unclaimed bodies, just months after burying 57 in July 2021.
The mortuary head explains that 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.
Information obtained from the two exercises, which is shared with chief or sub-chief of the person’s home area, is then used to trace the family of the deceased.
But in cases where the police fail to trace the family, the management is allowed by law 21 days before declaring a body unclaimed and then a court order is sought allowing for the deceased’s burial at Lang’ata cemetery.
Nonetheless, due to the short period, they add a grace period of up to three months.
Mr Wanjohi points to police negligence and broken family relations for the high numbers of unclaimed bodies at the mortuary.
He says failure by police to take fingerprints of the deceased to help in the identification of the bodies after their admission has been at the heart of the increasing numbers as there are no way next of kin of the deceased will be traced and notified of the presence of their loved ones at the morgue.
“Some police officers just bring the bodies and the journey ends there. When the fingerprint reports are not brought back at the morgue, the bodies are kept as unclaimed since there is no way we can trace the next of kin,” says Mr Wanjohi.
On strained family ties, the City Mortuary boss says some family members are not willing to come forward to pick bodies of their kins who had cut ties with other family members back home.
Some either give out wrong phone numbers once they bring the bodies to the mortuary or ignore when the morgue attendants reach out to them.
“In fact, some families come and after identifying the bodies give us a go-ahead to dispose them. This is because the deceased never bothered to go back home or maintain ties with their family after coming to the city,” he points out.
Despite the problems, however, Mr Wanjohi says that City Mortuary is and will still remain a force to reckon with in the capital city and its environs.
He explains that apart from having experts in the field and top-notch services like embalming, which are sought even by the private funeral homes, the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) has renovated the public mortuary to give it a new facelift.
The renovations have centred on the improvement of infrastructure, pain work, enhancing cleanliness as well as having enough water flowing in the facility and plans are also afoot to renovate freezers at the morgue which have been known for breaking down time and again.
“City Mortuary cannot be closed. There are those who believe in this mortuary only and also, unknown bodies brought by police will always be there,” he avers.