Contrary to the report by Peoples Gazette that some 103 Endsars victims are to be buried secretly by Lagos state government, OYO NEWS has authoritatively gathered that the corpses are abandoned dead bodies at LUTH mortuary, which prompted the state government to order for their mass burial unless relatives claim them on time.
The fate of 124 corpses abandoned at the morgue of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Idi-Araba, Lagos, is about to be sealed through a mass burial except their families claim the bodies early enough. Of the number, 99 were kids – aged 0 to 10 years, treasured in birth and childhood, but left to rot away in the mortuary after death.
The sad reality is the lot of the dead children and 29 adult corpses whose families have refused to claim them for burial. Some have spent 18 months in the mortuary without any relations bothering about what had become of the remains.
Rather than be given permanent resting places six feet below the earth, the corpses daily constitute a burden to the facility that is supposed to be their temporary holding bay.
Of late, the pressing situation prompted the hospital management to decide on a mass burial for them.
The management stated in a newspaper advertisement tagged ‘Unclaimed bodies from October 2019 to August 2020,’ published on June 24, 2021, stated, “This is to inform members of the public whose deceased relatives were deposited in the mortuary of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital to come forward with necessary proof to collect the bodies within four weeks of this publication.”
The notice signed by one Omolola Fakeye on behalf of LUTH Chief Medical Director, Prof Bode Chris, warned that the hospital would liaise with the appropriate government authorities immediately after the deadline to conduct mass burial for the unclaimed bodies “without further recourse to the families or relatives,” urging the concerned relations to “take note.”
“Within the time in question, we have 29 unclaimed bodies of adults. We also have unclaimed 99 corpses of children – those between ages 0 and 10 years,” a consultant pathologist at LUTH’s Anatomical and Molecular Pathology Department, Dr Martins Momoh, told Saturday PUNCH.
No mortuary bills, yet corpses unclaimed
The mortuary charges fees for corpses of adults, but retrieving children’s bodies is at no cost to the parents. Despite the waiver, remains of babies keep piling up as families fail to show up.
The bodies, most of which Momoh said were dead newborns, belonged to women referred to LUTH as a result of complications at traditional birth places.
Oftentimes, those patients were not booked at the hospital, making it difficult for them to be traced in the event that the babies died, the consultant said.
“At times, both the mother and the child died. Mainly, the children’s corpses were products of unregistered pregnant women who gave birth to babies that were in a bad state and they (the babies) gave up. Many times, they (mothers) just abandoned the children in the morgue,” he said.
Momoh lamented that LUTH had yet to see any relations or parents of those children, noting that “most times, the bodies were recovered at wards by mortuary attendants.”
Mortuary supervisor, Mr Christopher Adade
The mortuary supervisor, Mr Christopher Adade, said on many occasions, parents owed hospital bills and in an attempt to avoid payment, they would abandon their children’s corpses.
He noted, “Most of the unclaimed corpses were babies. Some of the parents believe that they don’t have anywhere to dispose of the bodies. It is a lot of stress but we do everything to make sure the morgue is not messed up.”
Unclaimed adult corpses
Saturday PUNCH gathered that the majority of the unclaimed adult bodies were from accidents and emergencies.
Momoh said that the corpses were usually victims of road traffic accidents brought in by concerned citizens and occasionally by policemen.
Of the 29 bodies, Momoh stated that the mortuary was able to establish contacts with only four relations, meaning the bodies are no longer abandoned, while families of the remaining 25 corpses never came.
He stated, “Sometimes, they (the relations) give wrong phone numbers; we make efforts to contact them. The mortuary supervisor has been mandated to get in touch with them. Sometimes we call some phone numbers but the receivers will say ‘wrong numbers;’ sometimes, the calls will not go through.
“The predominant causes of deaths are multiple fractures occasioned by road traffic accidents, gunshot wounds; trauma cases mainly. You hardly find those that died of chronic diseases such as diabetes and stroke as unclaimed corpses because they are brought in by relatives.”
Disturbingly, more than two weeks after the publication, no families had contacted the morgue. Momoh said the department would continue to call the relations as the deadline draws near.
He said, “One of the corpses has no identity so there is absolutely no way we can trace it. For those that have names, at one point, the relatives came to the morgue for registration and stopped coming. The adults are mainly males but for the children, we didn’t categorise them. Only one of the adults was aged about 70 years and we were in touch with the relatives. Others are young adults.’’
Mass burial looms
Upon the expiration of the deadline, the hospital management would commence arrangements for mass burial of the corpses.
However, Momoh said any corpses whose relations showed up within time would be pulled out of the list and payment terms agreed upon.
“So whatever we do, we put a human face to it. But for those whose relatives have never shown up, it is just an exercise in futility if we continue to keep them. We will give them mass burial,” he added.
Asked if there were cases in which families came to claim corpses after mass burial and took up the hospital, the consultant responded in the negative, saying he was not aware of any since 2006 when he joined the hospital.
Fresh corpses rejected
The morgue has 42 chambers each of which normally houses two bodies. Momoh complained that the preponderance of unclaimed corpses constrained the mortuary to put three in a chamber.
“You can imagine the number of chambers occupied by the 128 unclaimed bodies,” Momoh bemoaned, noting that the morgue had to reject fresh bodies “even if the relatives are ready to pay.”
He added, “There is another morgue here that is a little more expensive and most people cannot afford it. It operates on PPP (public and private partnership) arrangement. That is why we need to discard those unclaimed corpses because the chambers are few.
“However, we have 56 new additional chambers that will soon be launched by the CMD so that we will be able to serve the public better. We receive five to 10 corpses every day, excluding the COVID-19 period sometime last year when we did not receive any corpses.”
Momoh further said the unclaimed bodies had negatively impacted on the department’s capacity to shore up its revenue. To resolve the crisis, he said measures would be taken at the point of admitting emergency cases in the hospital.
He stated, “We will continue to do our best to enlighten people on unclaimed corpses. The enlightenment will come from the accident and emergency unit at the point of entry. Once a patient comes in, they should be able to identify some responsible persons among the relatives that can be engaged.
“Once patients die, especially children, the families feel the bodies are of no use. In preserving the body, we have to embalm. Embalmment is N35,000 per body. Then we preserve a body at a cost of N500 per day after the first 24 hours and the amount increases to N750 and N1,000 as weeks go by. So you can imagine the huge cost LUTH is bearing.”
Why parents, relations abandon corpses in mortuaries– Experts
A sociologist at the University of Lagos, Prof Olayiwola Olurode, said was a high tendency that corpses of low-status persons would be abandoned in mortuaries as the cost of claiming the bodies might be an additional burden to their families.
“Another reason is the cost of burial especially in Lagos,” Olurode noted, citing an instance whereby a family would spend at least N1m for mortuary bills, coffin and burial in a cemetery.
He added, “The reason can also be connected with the circumstance of death. If the dead person was a vagabond or the family had wished him dead a long time ago, they might not bother to claim his corpse.
“In the case of child mortality whereby the mother also died, the family might think that claiming their corpses is of no use. If it is only the child that dies, the death of a child is something that is never wished. So the parents may feel discouraged to claim the corpse. There is also an attitudinal dimension to it. The living in this country are hardly respected not to talk of the dead.”
The scholar opined that a poor database in Nigeria compounded challenges in tracking corpses whose relatives did not know their whereabouts.
He stated, “Every family should have the number of children they can take care of. Some people are just roaming about; they get missing and nobody bothers about them. We should also make burial as simple as possible instead of being elaborate. Some people abandon the corpses of their relatives for a year or two because they can’t afford the cost of burial.”
Also, a professor of psychology at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, Toba Elegbeleye, said the reason people abandoned corpses, especially in Lagos, could be linked to limited space, high cost of burial and economic hardship.
Elegbeleye stated, “To bury a child in a cemetery in Lagos comes with a cost. Many people will say what advantage is a child’s corpse to the parents though I agree we must honour the dead. People are economically incapacitated and when they are in that kind of situation, they tend to resort to all kinds of shenanigans to escape unpleasantness. The hospital should have a watertight system in terms of how the patients are registered.
“In a place like Lagos with all the associated population issues, many people will not claim corpses. People pay through their nose to get their loved ones buried in some cemeteries in the state.”
Also, a lecturer at the Department of Psychology, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State, Prof Christian Nweke, believed that single mothers would likely ignore corpses of their children particularly if the kids were products of unwanted pregnancies.
“Also, if the child is malformed at birth and later dies, the parents may not bother to claim the corpse especially if the parents are of high status and do not want to identify with such a child,” he added.
In her view, Lead Therapist and Chief Executive Officer, Therapy Consult Bysalem, Mrs Salem Ogunlowo, noted that unclaimed corpses could be attributed to the emotional state of the families and their inability to deal with grief.
She said, “A mental health issue, as well as loss of any kind, can feel just as bad or worse as any other physical illness, only that we cannot see it. The majority of individuals with mental health issues or challenges are as a result of unresolved grief.
“For most of us, we don’t know how to deal with losses, so instead of grieving, we fight the emotions, deny it or act strong. Loss, in whatever form it presents itself, causes a pessimistic view of things. It also discourages enthusiasm and stifles one’s initiative.
“As a psychotherapist and grief counsellor, I know what it means to struggle with painful emotions. We all have things that are hard to deal with or process in life, loss inclusive. Therefore, we need people around us who will support us in dealing with them.”
Ogunlowo said feelings arising from grief could be overwhelming and frightening, noting bereavement is tough to deal with.
She said, “If you have ever suffered a loss of someone or something dear or of great value to you, then you are familiar with the emotional pain, cognitive distortion or behavioural pattern that comes with it.
“One minute you are in disbelief, restless, agitated, deeply sad, depressed, angry, confused or numb. While the next minute you are crying, panicking or feeling out of control due to the unfairness of the loss or losses. These reactions are called grief or mourning reactions.
“Although, they are the natural process on how we respond to loss or bereavement, very few people know how to deal with it. The inability to resolve losses psychologically could result in complications like clinical depression and anxiety, thereby, affecting our general well-being or mental health. This could be one of the reasons why corpses are left or abandoned by relatives or parents.”
Burial costs in Lagos
Aside from accumulated mortuary bills, high cost of burial in Lagos has been identified as a major reason families abandoned corpses in the morgue.
In a recent report in Sunday PUNCH on public cemeteries in Lagos, our correspondent, who visited some cemeteries, found out that burying the dead could, indeed, cost a fortune.
For instance at Apena Cemetery, on Herbert Macaulay Way, the price ranges from N150,000 for a single chamber vault to N350,000 for a three-chamber vault. At Ikoyi Cemetery, a single or double-chamber vault goes for N950,000 while a three-chamber vault is N1,050,000. At Okesuna Cemetery on Lagos Island, single and three-chamber vaults cost N150,000 and N350,000 respectively.
Notably, burying the dead could gulp millions of naira in some private cemeteries in Lagos.
The ‘high costs’ constrained many poor relations to settle for temporary burial worth between N30,000 and N100,000, with the attendant risks, including incidences of missing body parts, associated with it.
“A temporary grave is not a vault which is permanent. Any corpse buried in a temporary grave can be replaced after the body has decayed, maybe a year after,” a worker at one of the cemeteries had told our correspondent.
Hospital gives soft landing – Dr Martins Momoh
According to Momoh, LUTH has put in place arrangements to sort out hospital bills of those who died in the facility and is willing to give huge discounts on mortuary bills on compassionate grounds.
He said despite the consideration and appeals by the management, many of the families had yet to turn up.
The consultant stated, “We tell them there are arrangements available for them to ensure the recovery of the bodies. You may owe N1m or N2m, all we are interested in is that the family should come to discuss with us. Once we discuss and give them some terms, they can recover the bodies.
“For instance, someone that has abandoned a body for one year and owes N600,000, may definitely not be able to pay due to the economic situation in the country. That has been factored in. They should just show up. We give huge discounts so that they can recover the bodies. The management will engage them and we have been magnanimous to quite a number of them. It had happened before and we were all happy about it.
“Some people may owe N1m and the management will just tell them to pay N250,000 which is about 75 per cent discount. Without discounts, the bill for the unclaimed 29 corpses is up to N5m. Quite a number of the relatives owe the hospital other than mortuary bills. They owe bills as regards ICU (intensive care unit), blood transfusion, drugs and admission. If they come, the management will waive all those ones for them. The CMD has been kind enough to waive those bills.”
Momoh stated that the impression by many people that LUTH was hostile and could detain hospital debtors was wrong, saying that the management was always open to mutual engagement.
He said, “All you need to do is to engage the management. We will discuss, slash the bill and even give terms. For example, out of N600,000, we may tell them to pay N200,000 and out of it, they may be asked to pay N50,000 deposit and pay the remaining N150,000 over a period of one year. It is a relaxed form of payment because we understand it is not a kind of payment the relatives are glad to make.
“Perception of LUTH by the general public is that the hospital will not agree to terms and will compel them to pay everything and even detain them. But that is completely far from the truth. If they can’t approach the CMD, they can approach the department and we will facilitate interaction with the CMD. He is even softer than most of us. They should feel free to come.
“We empathise with them and whatever amount they owe, the management knows how to make it easy for them. It is not good for our culture as Africans that bodies of our loved ones are being joined for mass burial. Those who lost their babies should come to retrieve the bodies.”