Menace of unclaimed corpses
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.