Men­ace of un­claimed corpses

Daily Trust - - OPINION -

Own­ers of 121 un­claimed corpses were re­cently sued at a Fed­eral High Court in Ye­nagoa, Bayelsa State. The con­gested morgue at the Fed­eral Med­i­cal Cen­tre (FMC), Ye­nagoa had been a source of grave con­cern to its man­age­ment. Dis­turbed by the large num­ber of un­claimed corpses, the hospi­tal’s au­thor­i­ties is­sued a 21-day pub­lic no­tice for fam­ily mem­bers to come and iden­tify the bod­ies and re­move them from the mor­tu­ary. At the ex­pi­ra­tion of the ul­ti­ma­tum, the hospi­tal through its coun­sel prayed the court for “an or­der grant­ing leave to FMC to cause to be buried un­claimed, uniden­ti­fied and aban­doned corpses in the mor­tu­ary.”

The suit be­ing a mo­tion ex-parte was heard by the pre­sid­ing judge, Jus­tice Ajayi who granted the prayer. FMC Ye­nagoa’s Chief Med­i­cal Di­rec­tor Dr Den­nis Alagoa said the hospi­tal took the mea­sure be­cause the corpses’ de­cay in the morgue posed threats to hu­man life. He said most of the corpses were of peo­ple that died on the road, in the river or were vic­tims of mil­i­tants’ at­tacks whose bod­ies were de­posited by se­cu­rity agents. Only re­cently, Na­tional Hospi­tal, Abuja [NHA] and some state gov­ern­ments also raised alarm over the in­creas­ing num­ber of un­claimed corpses in their mor­tu­ar­ies. Some mor­tu­ar­ies are com­pelled to pile corpses in im­pro­vised wooden plat­forms. Not long ago, NHA’s man­age­ment said 22 corpses were aban­doned by re­la­tions of the de­ceased in its morgue.

Apart from aban­don­ing by fam­i­lies, the high num­ber of aban­doned corpses is also at­trib­ut­able to the prac­tice in some Nige­rian cul­tures of keep­ing corpses for sev­eral months un­til fam­ily mem­bers raise the money for a ‘be­fit­ting burial.’ In some cases fam­ily mem­bers aban­doned the corpses due to ac­cu­mu­lated mor­tu­ary bills. Lack of proper iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, es­pe­cially of ac­ci­dent vic­tims, is also a ma­jor con­trib­u­tory fac­tor. Vic­tims of hit and run driv­ers on the road are of­ten likely to be uniden­ti­fied. In­tra-fam­ily quar­rels or po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tions of sus­pected crime add to the quan­tity of un­claimed corpses in morgues.

Lack of ad­e­quate fa­cil­i­ties to suf­fi­ciently em­balm corpses makes them to start de­com­pos­ing within a short pe­riod of time. The of­fen­sive odour from de­com­posed bod­ies has grave im­pli­ca­tions for hu­man health. To safe­guard the health of com­mu­ni­ties around mor­tu­ar­ies, the Ogun State gov­ern­ment re­cently closed down seven hos­pi­tals in Ijebu Igbo and an­other five in Ijebu Ode. The ex­er­cise was car­ried out in all the lo­cal gov­ern­ment ar­eas by the state mon­i­tor­ing team. The man­age­ment of the Univer­sity Col­lege Hospi­tal (UCH) Ibadan, Oyo State re­cently con­ducted mass burial for un­claimed corpses, say­ing some of them had been aban­doned for up to five years.

It is not even nec­es­sary to en­act a new law to deal with this prob­lem. The man­age­ment of ev­ery hospi­tal that has an em­balm­ment fa­cil­ity should have rules that guide the op­er­a­tions of its mor­tu­ary. Ev­ery de­pos­i­tor of a corpse should be made to read and sign an un­der­tak­ing at the point of sign­ing-in a corpse. The rules should in­clude a de­fined pe­riod af­ter which the hospi­tal’s man­age­ment will have to bury corpses that are un­claimed. Be­fore the mass burial of such un­claimed corpses are car­ried out, the man­age­ment of the hospi­tal is ad­vised to pub­lish iden­ti­fi­ca­tion de­tails of the corpse(s) in­volved. This has been the prac­tice in FCT Depart­ment of Health Ser­vices which pub­lishes iden­ti­fi­ca­tion de­tails of un­claimed corpses in na­tional dailies stat­ing that such bod­ies, if un­claimed af­ter two weeks from the date of the pub­lic no­tice, will be given mass burial. Be­fore mass buri­als how­ever, pho­to­graphs of the corpses should be taken and kept in the mor­tu­ary’s records of­fice for ease of fu­ture ref­er­ences.

In line with the tra­di­tions of the Angli­can Church, for in­stance, and other re­li­gious houses which dis­cour­age long pe­riod of em­balm­ment, cler­ics are en­joined to cau­tion their fol­low­ers against the bur­den­some and need­less cul­ture of ‘be­fit­ting burial’, a ma­jor fac­tor that ac­counts for the aban­don­ing of corpses in mor­tu­ar­ies. Lo­cal gov­ern­ment health work­ers should, through mon­i­tor­ing vis­its, en­sure that de­com­posed corpses are not left in mor­tu­ar­ies to con­sti­tute health haz­ards to host com­mu­ni­ties.

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