Handling the body of a four-year-old girl, whose throat was slit by a thread used for flying a kite, could be one of the most tormenting tasks. “I do this every day. But while handling this little child, my hands trembled and I realised I had tears in my eyes after a long time,” says J. Munusamy, recalling his recent experience at work.
Referred to as “cleaners” in mortuaries, persons like him are virtually “all in all” when it comes to ensuring the everyday functioning and maintenance of the morgues. Their assistance is vital for doctors performing autopsies.
On Wednesday, ambulances kept arriving one after another at the mortuary attached to the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital. With a pale green mask covering his nose and mouth, and trousers folded to three-quarters length, Mr. Munusamy, along with his colleagues, picks up the body that has just arrived and places it on a stretcher.
The cleaners attach a token number to the body before it is taken inside and placed in a cooler box. But this is only the beginning of their task. If it is a body meant for autopsy, they have to ready it. “And even after the post-mortem, we have to clean the body, wash it and pack it, before it is handed over to the family,” says the 27-year-old with an unmistakable earnestness in his voice.
While Mr. Munusamy followed his father's footsteps and took up the job, the experience is quite new to M. Sasikumar, another cleaner who joined only three months ago. “I remember my first few days here…I could neither eat nor sleep when I got back home.” The strong stench and the most unpleasant sights are likely to make anyone feel nauseous after a few minutes spent on the premises.
And what is worse is when the cleaners have to handle bodies of accident victims, particularly in cases of death on railway tracks. “Most of the body parts lie separately … it is a very challenging task,” says a cleaner.
Handling queries from family members of missing persons is another mind-numbing task, say the cleaners and attendants at the GH mortuary. “You'll have someone crying and asking us if their relative's body is inside. Though we are used to such queries and respond mechanically, sometimes, it just hits us. The procedures may be clinical, but we are after all, human,” says an employee of the mortuary.
How then do these cleaners carry on, enduring such difficulty on a daily basis? Mr. Muthusamy says: “My father told me, they [the bodies] are like God. I treat them that way and feel satisfied. After all, someone has to do this job, right?”
Cleaners' salaries differ depending on whether they are on the government rolls or they are hired on a contract basis. The average salary for those engaged on a contract is Rs.1,200 a month.
Cleaners at the mortuary attached to the Children's Hospital, Egmore, say their work is limited to packing and placing children's bodies in cooler boxes. “Post-mortem is not undertaken here, so we do not do much of cleaning or washing. But handling bodies of small children is no easy task. It takes the life out of you, really,” says a cleaner.
After 12 hours of work, cleaners also follow the practice of going home and bathing in water with antiseptic. As a senior mortuary employee puts it: “There are machines available for several jobs done by human beings. But the job that we do cannot be done by a machine. We think we are the chosen ones for it.”