Living on death in Zambia: 'Dead bodies can't harm you'

Funeral in Zambia - archive photo There are various taboos about death

Undertakers are often almost invisible - and in some societies they are stigmatised because of their job.

In Zambia strong cultural beliefs mean that they are feared and avoided by family members and neighbours.

So what inspired a Zambian man to challenge traditional and to work in a mortuary?

Hudson Mabwe Kapemba told the BBC World Service about his life as a mortuary attendant.

The 58 year old has been doing the job for more than 25 years.

He is one of the longest-serving morticians at Zambia's University Teaching Hospital in the capital, Lusaka.

Hudson Mabwe Kapemba:

I was the country's first mortician for the armed forces.

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Hudson Kapemba, a Zambian undertaker

I had to sleep among the dead to avoid being killed. I was not afraid of anything after that”

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The army advertised for the position of a mortuary superintendent back in September 1987. I was the only one courageous enough to apply.

Everyone was surprised I had applied. Even my new boss was initially cautious - he thought I would change my mind.

When he saw I really wanted to do this job he sent me to get some training so I could look after my fallen colleagues properly.

I have never been afraid of being around the dead. In 1978 there was this civil war in Zimbabwe. I was among the soldiers who fought there.

I saw my colleagues killed and had to sleep among the dead to avoid being killed. I was not afraid of anything after that.

The first body I prepared for burial was that of my late commander. I wasn't afraid; I was very professional. I cleaned and dressed his body and then went home. It didn't disturb me at all.

My job is very good. I don't know why people fear it. After all, dead bodies can't harm or annoy you as the living can.

When someone dies, all that is left is their body. It is the soul's suitcase. That's how I look at it.

Before I become a mortuary attendant, I had worked in the signals and information department in the Zambian army.

I had been doing my job for a while and was frustrated at not getting a promotion. So I thought I would try and do something different.

It took me a year before I could tell my wife about my new job. I was reluctant to tell her about it because I was aware of the stigma. That was more serious then than it is today, so I wasn't sure how she could deal with it.

When I finally told her, my wife wasn't thrilled, but she didn't try to stop me - she just told me to carry on if it was what made me happy.

'I am normal'

I could see it wasn't easy for her but she has supported me all these years.

Later she started to see the benefits of my new job. I was well looked after in the army. I do not regret my decision.

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I laugh when I hear people saying that we have to be drunk or carry charms from witch doctors”

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My children, who are between 13 and 25, know what I do for a living. I think they're coping well. I have never told them or discussed what I do with them. I never thought it was necessary to discuss it.

It's a demanding job. There are so many deaths happening now, with more than 20 people dying each day.

My job involves collecting dead bodies from the wards, recording their arrival at the mortuary and preserving them to slow or stop tissue decomposition. I also assist the pathologist during post-mortems.

Usually the relatives of the dead will clean and dress their dead when they come to collect them for burial. But it can be very stressful for some families, so they ask me to help them.

I laugh when I hear people saying we mortuary workers are not normal, that we have to be drunk or carry charms from witch doctors. It is not true.

I am normal and my Christian faith plays a big role in my life and work. I believe I was born to do this job.

It is true that some of the young colleagues we have recruited have not been able to cope with the stress and traumas of this job when sober, so they have fortified themselves with drink. But we discourage them and tell that they don't have to be high to do this job because it is a job like any other.

'Offensive'

I think that more young people would be interested in taking on the job if there weren't so many myths surrounding it, especially people associating our work with spirits.

Some people fear us.

Coffins from Ghana in the shape of fish, snakes and mobile phones Ghanaian coffins come in all sorts of shapes and colours - but mortuary attendants still face stigma

When they see me in this purple dust coat, they point at me and start moving away. Some won't even shake my hand.

There is an offensive Zambian word they use to refer to us - "malukula". It means one who wields a hammer. It is based on a myth that a mortuary worker hammers anyone who might come back to life. It's hurtful; it's like calling us murderers.

People's perceptions towards us are gradually changing. But there is still a long way to go.

We are not well paid and that puts many people off, and the profession is often seen as a job for the old.

There is also not enough interaction with the public, which I think would help our image out there.

I do not regret my decision to become a mortuary worker. I have met presidents and important people through my job. I was given a house by the late President Frederick Chiluba. Even the current President Michael Sata knows me. I looked after his late grandson.

I bring comfort to people during a difficult period in life and I couldn't be happier.

I officially retired two years ago but because of a staff shortage I have been recalled twice. My last retirement was last December and on the first of January I was back at work again. I think I will work until I die.

Hear more about the unreported world of Zambia's mortuary workers in Living on Death on the BBC World Service, starting on 3 July 2012.

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