Not many people are able to handle just the sight of a lifeless body around them, worse still if it is not that of a relative or friend.
For funeral directors, dead bodies are their stock in trade.
Talk to any undertaker or staff who work for funeral parlours, they all have fascinating stories to tell about how they ended up in the profession.
For Chengetai Jones, a mortician at First Funeral, she was inspired into taking up the profession after witnessing a body being expertly embalmed at a mid-tier funeral parlour in Harare.
She realised her passion for “beautifying” the dead during the time that her late mother worked as an accountant for that same funeral company.
Whenever she visited, Jones would pester a mortician who was popularly known as Lenon to grant her access into the mortuary.
Her first encounter with a dead body was when Lenon allowed her to watch as he was cleaning and patching an accident victim, who had bruises and deep cuts all over the body.
“…it was an adventure and I could not believe the results: the wounds and cuts were no longer visible after the patching and embalming. At that point I felt that it was exactly what I wanted to do,” she recalled with nostalgia.
“Lenon admired my bravery and encouraged me to join the profession but when I later tried looking for him after my mother’s death, I was gutted to hear that he had passed on. His workmates then told me that First Funeral required a female mortician.”
She was invited for an interview at First Funeral on September 13, 2006 and got the job.
The rest is history.
She has been a mortician at the parlour for 14 years.
The zeal she enthuses in embalming dead corpses defies the morbid stereotypes associated with the once male-dominated career.
She has since learnt to live each day as if it were her last and to treat dead bodies as her friends.
Jones said she is no longer scared of death nor is she afraid to comfort someone who would have suffered a loss.
She says as she would be doing her job, she gives the deceased the same love and attention that their friends and family would if they were the ones caring for the body.
“I’m not scared of corpses. I can confidently visit an accident scene and rescue people when other men are covering their faces in fear.
“I had the privilege of dressing a number of my deceased close relatives and I was the first person to be called whenever death occurred in the family.
“Corpses have become my friends. I have seen it all and death does not scare me anymore. For me, it is simply a transition to the afterlife and I know my day will also come.”
To demonstrate how comfortable she is in the company of corpses, Jones can even take her food while in the mortuary.
She said: “I enjoy my food and would sometimes actually carry it to the mortuary and quickly eat before finishing dressing the body. There is nothing unusual. For me, a dead person is only different from the living because they cannot talk.”
The mother of two says she can actually communicate with the dead bodies that she calls her friends.
For 11 years, she worked single-handedly at the parlour until she was joined by another female mortician.
Before then, she would only ask for assistance from her male workmates to pull corpses placed in top drawers for embalming.
“Most of them cannot stand the mortuary; it takes a lot of courage,” she told the Daily News on Sunday.
Jones says it is quite encouraging that more women are taking up the profession and excelling.
“This says a lot about gender responsibilities that women have for long been restricted from venturing into by society. It is just like any other job,” Jones said.
Like any other profession, being a mortician isn’t an easy job.
But contrary to perceptions that morticians take drugs to deal with dead bodies, Jones says this is far from being the case.
“It is a lie that morticians take drugs to maintain a sober sense. I have done this job for years but never took any drugs or alcohol,” she argued.
She also dismissed cultural beliefs that forbid pregnant women from going near a dead body to protect the unborn baby from diseases or being tormented by evil spirits.
Jones has carried pregnancies for her two children while on duty.
“I could even have the corpse’s head rub against my belly and nothing happened to me. In fact, I would work up to the ninth month and normally went for maternity leave a few days before delivery,” she said.
Once in a while, she has had unpleasant moments.
At one time, while preparing a body that had been brought to her in a decomposing state, fluids gushed out and smeared her whole face.
She said she developed warts, as a result.
“I was later treated and thank God it was not one of these sexually transmitted infections. The warts looked like herpes and for a moment my heart skipped.
“The work is physically and emotionally demanding and you must be willing and able to work long hours. An ever-present sense of urgency is another reality of the job and one ought to have a strong stomach for the post-mortem sights and smells,” she admitted.
She is happy to have a supportive family which also utilises her expertise whenever a family member has passed on.
But does she have a moment she would rather forget quickly?
Jones narrated to the Daily News on Sunday how staff at a local hospital she could not name for professional reasons tested her resilience.
She had visited the hospital to pick up a body and prepare it for burial.
She least expected the worst would happen.
Hospital personnel ushered her into the room where the body lay and with the help of a driver from her funeral parlour, they had hoped to quickly retrieve the corpse and have it cleaned up in time for burial.
Unbeknown to them, the deceased person had encountered a dreadful accident that detached his body into two.
She held the body part which had been wrapped in clothe by the legs while her driver got the upper body and on the count of three, they were going to lift the corpse but Jones fell to the ground because the corpse’s other body part followed her and everything became a mess.
“It was one of the worst of my experiences. I will not say the name of the hospital but I was a regular there and the nurses used to tease me for choosing this line of profession, so, that day, when I arrived, they had shouted ‘that girl is here and today and we have an ace up our sleeve for her’,” Jones said as she reflected on her 14 years as a mortician.
“My robe got soiled but we just took our body and returned to the parlour. I never did anything else but just washed myself and left for home.”
That experience taught her to be extra careful.