Compassion of mortuary workers is a humbling experience

23 June 2016 - 00:00 By GRAEME HOSKEN
Selby Cindi, a forensic officer from Johannesburg Forensic Pathology Services in Hillbrow, brings in the body of an accident victim.
Selby Cindi, a forensic officer from Johannesburg Forensic Pathology Services in Hillbrow, brings in the body of an accident victim.
Image: Alon Skuy

Quiet, except for a low humming noise, a rank sickly sweet smell permeates from a massive industrial fridge that I am standing in front of.

"You can look if you like", says Carletonville forensic pathology services officer, Sello Mabote, smiling at my hesitation.

Questions of death, and my morbid curiosity of it, especially around those who collect bodies off pavements, from car wrecks and crime scenes, are about to be answered.

"We are amazed that you guys are here. Are you sure you really want to be here?"

"Don't get us wrong. We are happy that you are here and that you taken the time to tell our story because nobody else cares about us, but you are crazy," laughs Mabote, "just like us".

His welcome and huge smile are disarming, especially for a man, whose business is death.

Curious, I watch as he heaves the bright white fridge door open. I have no idea what to expect. Blood, guts maybe?

There they are. Some sprawled on gurneys, others neatly tucked inside body bags. Almost all of them peaceful, as though asleep. It's a bit of a surprise.

Mabote laughs at my reaction.

"What did you expect? Them to start talking to you?"

His humour eases us into the grim task that lays ahead of us tonight - the collection of the dead.

It's eerily quiet as Mpho Marahoni - Mabote's colleague - writes down a body's details.

The silence is unnerving.

Although going through the normal routine, I can see Marahoni is not at ease. Instead he fidgets, constantly checking his standby cellphone.

It gets my adrenalin pumping, the thoughts flying - what's going to happen, how bad is it going to be, when will that first call come?

He's not wrong. Minutes later the first call comes in.

"You want to know what it's like. What death is like, what our jobs are like. Tonight you will see. You will see for yourself, you will see the blood, the pain, the tears, the anger."

"This is not something we can take home. People think we are cruel, are sickos and vultures, but we are not. We are fathers, family people," says Hillbrow morgue officer Selby Cindi.

"Tonight at least you can go home and tell your family about your experience, but us? We are stuck here with our thoughts, our dreams and our fears," Mabote says.

Mabote's words sink in as he looks away, the look on his face providing a brief glimpse into his world of pain, fear and sometimes loathing. It haunts me.

"Here this is our family. Yes they are our colleagues but they are also the only ones who really know," says Mabote, nodding at Marahoni.

It is true. They are the only ones who really know what it is like when your job involves dealing with death.

"I hope tonight is what you want it to be. More than what you thought it would be. Tell it like it is. Please show the people, tell them what death means, what we go through."

My thoughts? My feelings? Millions all at the same time.

I am humbled by the men and women who collect the dead, day in and out, with unwavering compassion, trapped in a world that only they can ever know.

I am humbled, knowing that even with so much cruelty and heartache, there is so much compassion by so few to ease the pain of so many.