Society

Paul Van Brussel: Morgue boss’ life lessons

brussel

Paul Van Brussel, a co-director at Lee Funeral Home and the managing director and owner of Que Pasa Bar & Bistro during the interview in Karen, Nairobi on September 30, 2020. PHOTO | KANYIRI WAHITO | NMG

Summary

  • For 11 years now, he has managed to run two businesses that are a life apart: a bar and a morgue.
  • For much of his career, Van Brussel has flowed with the tide. “I’d have been a pilot, and probably a different person emotionally,” he tells me in recognition of the sharp turns his life has taken. “It doesn’t matter if you’re an accountant or an undertaker. You have to do your best.”

Every tiny detail at Que Pasa Bar & Bistro in Karen, Nairobi, is a doorway into the soul of Paul Van Brussel, the owner. The resplendent lighting, his aesthetic affinity for acid jazz, the tasteful and nearly quixotic artworks that adorn the walls, sum up his character.

The Belgian delights in finesse. Not surprisingly, he shares a name with an 18th-century Dutch old master painter.

Clad in a navy blue tuxedo matched with cream khaki slacks and auburn brogues, Van Brussel projects an air of freedom from business suits, his official dress code as the managing director of Lee Funeral Home.

“I hate to wear suits,” he says with an edgy laugh. “They make me uncomfortable.”

He tells me Que Pasa started as a partnership between him and two other Belgians in 2009. The duo soon fell out, leaving him as the only director. The business is now managed by his wife Karen.

First, we venture into his day job at Lee Funeral Home, to which he has faithfully dedicated 25 years of his life since arriving in Kenya in 1996. Van Brussel is a co-director with Mr John Lee, with whom he has an almost father-son relationship.

“John Lee is more than a partner to me. He’s the godfather to our son,” he says reverently.

Mr Lee, 74, was born in Kenya to British parents. In the 1980s, when Charles Njonjo was the board chairman of the adjacent Nairobi Hospital, he suggested to Mr Lee about setting up a morgue within the hospital grounds, a proposition that seemed inviting. This was the genesis of Lee Funeral Home.

When he walks through the gates of the facility every morning, there is always one constant: a compact diary. He must help grieving families to organise funerals, arrange repatriations, attend church services and cremations and still sell coffins and lease hearses.

“Repatriating bodies is a complex process that involves dealing with embassies. Each embassy has its own regulations,” he explains.

Yet being thrust at the epicentre of often violent family clashes is the most delicate and exhausting of them all, he tells me. These antagonisms, some that drag on for years, cost families millions of shillings in hospital and mortuary bills.

“When a body is occupying space without fees because of a dispute, it’s sad for the family and bad for business,” he says. The morgue is sometimes forced to waive the bill.

“Other times, families have to obtain a court order for the body to be released,” he says.

But how, for 11 years now, he has managed to run two businesses that are a life apart: a bar and a morgue? What persona runs each? “They complement each other,” he says sublimely. “In my office, the only thing you see is misery and bodies. I needed cheer in my life and something of my own.”

Has Que Pasa offered him that? By all means, he says revelling in triumph, and noting that he has since made Mr Lee a co-director. “It’s a different kind of relief.’’ Even a bigger relief for someone who started with a 20 percent stake in the business.

The bomb blast in 1998, West Gate Mall attack in 2013 and air crash in Kenya have defined his career. “These changed my life because of the high number of casualties involved. These incidents were overwhelming in different ways.”

The most complicated exercise of them all was this year’s death of former President Daniel Moi. From the military takeover at Lee Funeral Home to his involvement in state funeral arrangements and accompanying the body to Kabarak in a military chopper, this assignment was quite unlike any other Van Brussel had dealt with.

“At one point, my team and I weren’t allowed in, I had to prove that I’m a director there,” he recalls. “Moi’s personal driver, and not the morgue’s, drove the hearse to the requiem mass.”

I’m eager to know what—after 25 years—death means to him. He taps at the table, as if to summon a response from a less accessed chamber of his brain.

“I’d never seen a body before I had started working there. I was in shock and didn’t eat for three days,” he narrates. “It hits you even harder when you’re dealing with someone close to you. You have to grieve with the family, and still make money for the business.’’

To what extent has Covid-19 changed the handling of cadavers? “There has been a lot of anxiety. We’ve had more than 30 cases at the facility in the last six months. Our personnel has to use extra personal protective gear.”

On whether he has handled a body himself, Van Brussel replies that that’s a routine in this job. “Sometimes we don’t have a driver or a mortuary attendant. So I have to take an ambulance and fetch the body myself,” he explains.

When the deceased is a family friend, he says he is compelled to take charge “as a sign of respect.”

With all the agony he witnesses every day, I wonder what this job has taught him about life. Did anything prepare him for it? “I was working in a restaurant before I came here,” he recounts. Momentarily, he seems lost in contemplation. “You realise that life can be very short. That fact confronts me every day. Yet I still get worked up about small things in life such as overlapping on the road.”

But there is more to loss. “It’s hard enough to have a body on a bench. But when you listen to stories from family about the deceased, then that completely shatters you.”

He looks horrified when I ask about his biggest fear. “Dying,” he says, adding with cadence: “Death is scary.”

Last year, Van Brussel was in the hospital for three weeks for appendicitis. Death, he tells me, was all he was thinking about. “After surgery, the wound got infected. My blood infection was so bad doctors told me I could have gone into coma and died,” he recalls. “I’d never cried so much in my life. I hadn’t cried for 15 years.”

I’m curious to know how the back story of this savvy entrepreneur and established professional has influenced his current orbit. Van Brussel tells me that he grew up in the eastern Belgian countryside of Hasselt, “where you saw only five vehicles in a day.’’ Ever the go-getter, he sold walnuts on the street for his pocket money.

Van Brussel and Karen have two children, Loui, eight and Milly, five. Does he see his childhood drive in them? Does he see this drive in his children? An almost imperceptible deflation flashes across his mien as Van Brussel adjusts in his seat. Privilege, he asserts, may have influenced his children’s outlook in life. “I teach them that there’s another life besides what they have. In this country, many children their age go without food and other needs,” he says.

Home-schooling –which Loui doesn’t like –has been the family’s toughest test during the lockdown. “When he refuses to study, I ask him to help out our gardener.”

But how, for 11 years now, he has managed to run two businesses that are a life apart. What persona runs each? “They complement each other,” he says sublimely. ‘‘In my office, the only thing you see is misery and bodies. I needed cheer in my life, and something of my own.” On food, Talisman restaurant in Nairobi and Peponi in Lamu feature on top of the pecking order of their favourite eat-out places. To him, a restaurant’s atmosphere comes first. The lighting, the decor and the music must be in communion.

A delightful dish, he adds, must go hand in hand with an inspiring aura. He designed Que Pasa himself, something he talks about with brimming pride. “I’m warm and cosy at heart,’’ he responds when I ask him what the eatery says about him.

In two years, Van Brussel hits 50. He tells me he is already thinking about his golden jubilee birthday, not in grand terms, but from a dimension of food. “I’m planning to treat my friends to a meal. Perhaps in Italy,” he says buoyed by the thought of it.

For a man whose linguistic prowess covers his native Flemish, English, “a tiny bit” of French and very scanty German, Van Brussel believes he could flourish anywhere.

I ask him how family has transformed his social life. “Since the children came, we go out less often,” he says reflectively. “Before, I’d be out all night for five days a week. I’d close the bar myself.” Today, three glasses of wine knock him out flat-out.

He admits that the Covid-19 hiatus has upended his life: it’s been the first and only time his mind has had a real shift from his career. Does he discuss his job with his children? He shrugs. “Last year my son asked me: what do you do in your other office? He went on to say: you put dead people in the black limousine, eh? I couldn’t figure out how to answer him.”

The couple uses symbols to talk about his business at the morgue.

Had clubs and bars not been reopened, he tells me Que Pasa couldn’t have survived for one more month “without injecting private funds into it.’’

“It’s frustrating that some businesses were observing the rules while others sold alcohol illegally. No wonder you didn’t hear a persistent outcry from bar and club owners,” he says.

Toasts may be back and jobs salvaged, but the year is already lost, he bemoans.

“We were growing at between five and 10 percent per year. In 2020, we’d hoped to grow at more than 10 percent.” This is now off the table.

His biggest frustration though has been the failure to acquire Kenyan citizenship, with permanent residency also proving a long shot.

Among his most treasured gifts is his private pilot licence that he obtained in 1998, thanks to Mr Lee who sponsored his course. His late father worked in the air force, and by 15, Van Brussel had learnt to fly. He even flies his family to the Maasai Mara and the coast. “I’d definitely want to fly more often than I do.’’

When I ask him about his sense of style, he says something to the effect that fashion does not appeal to him. But he always has a suit in his car.

For much of his career, Van Brussel has flowed with the tide. “I’d have been a pilot, and probably a different person emotionally,” he tells me in recognition of the sharp turns his life has taken. “It doesn’t matter if you’re an accountant or an undertaker. You have to do your best.”

Even after working for half his life, Van Brussel never stops to look for a bigger challenge.

“I worry when nothing is happening,” he says, adding that he is not a fast learner but a resilient one.

While he has the wherewithal to open other branches across the country, Van Brussel remains apprehensive about the move.

“I’d like to maintain our quality and standards, which may not be possible with multiple facilities,” he says.