Situated in a quaint corner of the bustling Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad, the only thing that sets the two-storied building apart from the other blocks on the premises is the striking absence of a crowd. On entering the establishment, one notices the rooms, their walls dotted with paan stains and adorned with paintings of ancient medical practices. The curious looking steel structures are the first hint of another world inside this otherwise unexceptional building. Labelled as the Department of Autopsy, this building houses the mortuary and postmortem facilities of the hospital, managed by a group of three to four attendants and a clerk.
Mortuaries are popularly associated with tales inspiring horror and fear. For people working in the morgue, their primary means of livelihood is based on extracting organs out of corpses, stitching them back and cleaning them before they are cremated. However, the lives of the morgue attendants are as intriguing as they are grim.
Kiran has been a morgue attendant for almost 20 years. Neither death nor dead bodies bother him any longer. “We are well trained to perform this job. Any hesitation in dealing with dead bodies is gone at the time of training itself. Whatever remains, 20 years of service takes care of that,” he said, adding, “However, if the body is decomposed or a burning case, the stench is too strong to deal with and on those days I feel queasy while eating.”
There are enormous health hazards related to this occupation. Pathogens spreading tuberculosis, blood-borne hepatitis and AIDS can still be transmitted even after the death of a patient. Thus, the possibility of the morticians getting infected is extremely high. General infections and skin disorders are also common for them. The Health Ministry lacks any special healthcare scheme for these people and while permanent employees benefit from the government employee health care system, contractual workers have absolutely no health cover.
The lack of proper hygiene measures further adds to the woes. Veeresham, the clerk of the department, said, “Recently the hospital authorities have commissioned cold storage units to store dead bodies. Earlier when these freezers were not there, the place almost resembled a slaughter house. The filth and stench made this place a hell hole, unfit for any human to enter.”
However, the physical hazards look insignificant when compared to the mental stress that comes with the job. Most morticians claim they need an alcohol- or drug- induced haze in order to battle the inherent morbidity their job entails. “The clerk who was here before I came a year back found it difficult to deal with it and succumbed to alcohol and eventually died. Even I got into that habit for a while but then managed to stay away from it,” said Veeresham.
These conditions, coupled with the absence of any particular working hours do not help their situation either. Kiran further added, “Often we have to accommodate requests from hospital authorities or important ministers. They simply call us and ask us to deal with a case at any time and we have to comply. There are no fixed working hours for us.”
Surprisingly, the grimy details of their job do not hinder the friendly banter and camaraderie between the colleagues. Sipping a cup of tea, his shirt still stained with blood from a recent case, Kiran reminisced, “When I was young, I wanted to be an engineer, but here I am. I don’t regret it. I know my job is looked down upon by many but the support of my family helps me get through it every day. I have two daughters who are both studying in schools. This job enables me to provide for their education and fulfill other needs of my family.”
Veeresham, in the same spirit, added, “Somebody needs to do this job. It can get really depressing at times but we have a good staff. Whenever the stress gets too much, we chat about each other’s family or crack a joke to lighten the mood. There is Salim Bhai here who has been a mortician for 35 years now. We call him the ‘king of the morgue’ and he keeps us entertained with his jokes and craziness. It is really not as bad as it sounds.”
Echoing the message at the entrance which reads, ‘Mortuary is a temple of learning where the dead teach the living,’ the staff and their attitude towards their supposedly ghastly job and life in general indeed teaches us a thing or two about appreciating life and accepting whatever life throws at you with courage, determination, hard work and most importantly, a smile on your face.