Femi Atoyebi, Mudiaga Affe, Femi Makinde, Success Nwogu and Gbenro Adeoye
Numbers of unclaimed corpses are rising in the mortuaries of public hospitals across the country as families abandon the bodies of loved ones, an investigation by Saturday PUNCH has revealed.
In some cases, it was learnt that families who had spent a lot of money taking care of sick relations, simply abandoned them when they died.
Some mortuary attendants told our correspondents that the relatives of many of such deceased persons no longer pick their calls. Also compounding the number of unclaimed corpses are those of mentally challenged victims who died on the street as well as accident victims and suspected armed robbers killed by security agents.
The situation is so dire in Cross River State that over 1,000 unclaimed corpses are currently in public and private mortuaries in the state, Saturday PUNCH learnt.
Authorities of the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital had in 2013 buried over 200 unclaimed corpses in a mass grave.
The Calabar General Hospital in 2015 also buried over 100 corpses for lack of space.
Apart from accident victims, the bulk of corpses were abandoned by dubious relatives who provided fake contact addresses after depositing the dead bodies, it was learnt.
A private mortician operating in Ikom Local Government Area of the state, Mr. Emeka Ben-Chima, decried the health risk constituted by the high number of corpses abandoned in mortuaries across the state.
Ben-Chima said that over 300 corpses had been left unclaimed in his mortuary and others for several years with some deposited as far back as 2010.
He said, “Some of the dead bodies are from Akwa Ibom and neighbouring states. Others are from Cameroon and Cross River State which were deposited by people who said they were their relatives but they failed to collect them after many years. We tried to trace the addresses they gave us but discovered that those addresses were fake and the phone numbers they gave too were fake.”
Unlike the cases of UCTH and the General Hospital in Calabar, Ben-Chima said he was afraid of burying the bodies in a mass grave because the owners of the corpses might appear some day to demand for the bodies of their relatives.
In Ekiti State for instance, the situation has become so bad that the state government announced over the radio one week ago that families who had unclaimed corpses in the government hospitals in the state should come for them immediately as the situation had become worse.
Raising the alarm over the situation in the mortuary of the Ekiti State University Teaching Hospital, Ado Ekiti, the Chief Medical Director, Dr. Kolawole Ogundipe, said that unclaimed corpses in the mortuary had become a threat to the smooth running of the facility.
Ogundipe said such unclaimed bodies had occupied the available space in the mortuary and was impeding service delivery.
In a similar case, a spokesperson for the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital in Enugu, Mr. Cyril Keleze, said the situation in the facility’s mortuary had become so bad that morticians who maintain the bodies were now finding it difficult to manage because of the congestion.
“In this kind of situation, we’ll get the permission of the government to go ahead and bury such corpses in order to decongest the mortuary,” Keleze said. In Oyo State, a health worker at the University College Hospital, Ibadan, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the situation as a constant worry for the management of the hospital’s mortuary.
The source said it had become common for families who could not afford to pay mortuary and hospital bills to simply abandon the corpses of their deceased relations.
Another source in the hospital said UCH authorities had made announcements in the media this year, calling on families of the deceased persons to come for the corpses.
The source said, “The law says that operators of public mortuaries must place advertisements in a major newspaper two or three times before classifying bodies as abandoned corpses. After the first advertisement, you have to wait for certain number of days before placing a reminder, after which you can go ahead and dispose the bodies. Sometimes, a third reminder may be necessary depending on the number of the corpses involved.
“The management of UCH placed advertisements in the newspapers to announce that there were abandoned corpses in the hospital mortuary. There were few responses but many bodies still had to be disposed. There have been two batches of such disposal this year but I cannot verify the number of corpses involved. Without conducting such exercise, the mortuary would be crowded and unhygienic.”
The situation is the same in Osun State where the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology Teaching Hospital in Osogbo had to organise a mass burial for some unclaimed corpses last week.
In Kwara State, hospital authorities are finding it difficult to track down many of the relations of the deceased as the contact numbers of many of them have remained switched off.
The Director-General, Kwara State Hospitals Management Bureau, Dr. Olubunmi Jetawo-Winter, told one of our correspondents on Friday that two of the state government mortuaries were facing the problem of unclaimed corpses.
She said the hospital management bureau had made concerted efforts to contact affected families to claim the corpses, but have been largely unsuccessful.
According to her, the hospitals have been incurring the costs of preserving the corpses without knowing when the families would ever come for them.
To find a solution to this problem, Jetawo-Winter said the hospital management had notified the Ministry of Justice and the Kwara State Police Command to help track down the families. But in the meantime, she said the bureau would continue to make public announcements.
Our correspondent in Ondo State also reported that the mortuary in the specialist hospital in the state capital, Akure, was filled with abandoned corpses.
An attendant in the hospital, who pleaded anonymity, said some of the corpses were identified but that the families had simply refused to claim them.
“But we cannot dispose them unless the government approves their disposal. When it is time for the disposal, the government would announce its intention in the media and a deadline would be set,” the attendant said.
However, findings showed that that this situation does not affect hospitals in the northern part of the country where Muslims are required to inter the bodies of deceased persons within a day of their death.
- Additional reports by: Kamarudeen Ogundele, Ihuoma Chiedozie, Peter Dada, Enyioha Opara, and Olaide Oyelude