Mrs Taiwo Ogunsola has been in the funeral business for a while.
The Taiwo Ogunsola and Sons (TOS) Funerals is a family business which was established in 2003 to provide affordable funeral services. The venture has however made its Managing Director, Mrs Taiwo Ogunsola to know the high and mighty in the society. She has treated the bodies of the late Ondo State Governor, Dr Olusegun Agagu, and those of the January 25, 2002 Ikeja Cantonment blast victims recovered from Oke-Afa canal.
The industrious woman can also boast of having an award from the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Associciation Inc, South Africa, due to her professional works while handling bodies recovered from the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) building collapse last year. In a new interview with The Nation, Mrs Ogunsola explains the process involved in the funeral business, the danger and the challenges in it. Read excerpts below:
What does your work entail?
I do embalm and resuscitate. I also do a lot of restoration. On a daily basis, I try as much as possible to embalm at least one case a day.
What do you mean by embalmment and resuscitation?
Embalmment means trying to preserve the body from decomposing very fast. We change the left over blood in the system. Then, we use a chemical to preserve the corpses, to let them look like they are still alive. Resuscitation means the reconstruction of the body to resuscitate it to how it was. It is hard work but it can be achieved.
How long is the embalmment process?
It is 45 minutes with the machine.
Do the relatives of the body decide how you embalm?
Yes, they do. When I was in the United Kingdom (UK), I found out that they do dry embalmment in Nigeria for up to two weeks. I cannot understand that. What we do is arterial embalmment. We embalm through the arteries and we do aspirate. We remove the left over fluids and replace them with chemical which fixes the abdominal organ. The body can be kept outside for up to one year. Most people are fixing the surface and not really the inner part.
What drives your passion in this sector?
I would say God. I was actually inspired by God through a dream in 1997. It is a call for me.
What is the link between the abbreviation, TOS, and your profession?
The name is Taiwo Ogunsola and Sons Funeral Home. TOS is just for easy pronunciation.
How come your services are run mostly from government-owned facilities?
When I came to Nigeria, I met with the state government to discuss how we can manage the mortuary in terms of employing and engaging professionals. Unfortunately, they could not understand what I mean by that, because they have never employed a professional. I had my professional certificate from the UK and another one as a certified funeral practitioner from United States (US).
I came in during the bomb blast of Ikeja Cantonment of 2002, which led many people to drown inside the Oke-Afa canal. Many bodies were fished out of the canal at Oke-Afa in Oshodi-Isolo Local Government Area of the state. And that was when I did my first trial job for Lagos State. They engaged public-private partnership (PPP). The state government was impressed with the outcome of the job done and later, I was called to come on board. I have my private outfit as well.
We were the first to do PPP with the government. Honestly, I would still give it to Dr. Lekan Pitan and Dr. Jide Idris because they really gave us the chance to prove our worth. We have been trying, it is not too bad but it could be stressful.
Is your trade financially rewarding?
Mortuary business is a long-term capital-intensive business. It is not as if you start today and start getting money from it. You must have a lot of passion, perseverance and patience. The money would come but not so fast. I stress that it is a capital-intensive business.
Why is it that you are the one running the business and not employed staff? What is responsible for that?
It is a family business because all over the world, funeral business is often generational. It is a call for me. My children are the second generation; they are all working with me and we are trying to put the third generation in place. But that does not mean we don’t employ hands as staff. But it remains a family business.
What is your relationship with other people in the profession? Do they see you as a rival, rather than partner?
I am tired. When I came into the country, I thought we were going to have a very cordial relationship. But I noticed people take it as a do-or-die affair in Nigeria. And most of them are over night pack your bag morticians.
What do you mean by ‘pack your bag’ morticians?
I do not think they know anything. Maybe they work inside the mortuaries as attendants; they then consider themselves as morticians. Mortuary attendants do not fall into being morticians. Let me explain this; unless you work for a funeral home, or unless you have an obsession about death and dying practices, you may wonder if there is a difference between a funeral director and a mortician or a mortician and an undertaker.
For all intents and purposes today, there is no difference especially if the funeral home is a small family operation. But, in larger funeral home operations, you might see a slight difference in what each job traditionally entails. The ‘Undertaker’ is a traditional European term that describes the person who would transport the body, prepare it for burial and interact with the survivors on funeral preparations. When the colonies were formed in the New World and burial services were needed, often church and family members would take over the job of the undertaker.
During the Civil War, when embalming practices became popular among the growing funeral profession, the title of the person handling the affairs became the “Mortician” over the last decades of the 19th century.
Can you differentiate between morticians and funeral practitioners?
Morticians are people that work in the mortuary. You might actually train to be a mortician. Scientists go to school to study sciences. It is a bit hard to differentiate, but to me, we are all morticians. Being a funeral practitioner, you can do everything from arranging the funeral to attending the funerals. You sell the casket as a funeral director and you attend the funeral. On a larger scale, I will say the roles of a mortician and an embalmer are different.
A mortician is a person who arranges for the final disposition of the body. An embalmer is someone who has been trained in the art and science of embalming and may not have any contact with the family, although many people fill both roles. Embalming training commonly involves a formal study in anatomy, thanatology, chemistry and specific embalming theory, to widely varying levels depending on the region of the world one lives in, combined with practical instruction in a mortuary with a resultant formal qualification granted after the passing of a final practical examination and acceptance into a recognised society of professional embalmer, while the funeral director arranges the details and handles the logistics of funerals.
They interview the family to learn their wishes about the funeral, the clergy or other people who will officiate, and the final disposition of the remains. Sometimes, the deceased leaves detailed instructions for his or her own funeral. Together with the family, funeral directors establish the location, dates, and times of wakes, memorial services, and burials. They arrange for a hearse to carry the body to the funeral home or mortuary. They also comfort the family and friends of the deceased. Funeral directors prepare obituary notices and have them placed in newspapers, arrange for pallbearers and clergy, schedule the opening and closing of a grave with a representative of the cemetery, decorate and prepare the sites of all services, and provide transportation for the deceased, mourners, and flowers between sites. They also direct preparation and shipment of the body for out-of-state burial.
Can you share your experience during the plane crash involving the late former Ondo State Governor, Dr Olusegun Agagu, and what transpired between you and others in your profession?
The crashed plane belonged to Associated Airlines. A plane carrying about 20 people and the body of former Ondo State Governor, Olusegun Agagu, that crashed shortly after take-off from the domestic wing of the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos. The chartered Embraer 120 marked 5NBJY, belonged to Associated Airlines Limited, was heading for Akure, the Ondo State capital, for the final leg of the funeral rites for the ex-governor.
Agagu died in Lagos on September 13. A lot of undercurrent took place but let us respect the dead, the living and colleagues. But the truth is that I have not been lucky with colleagues in Nigeria. It pains me from my bone marrow. We can actually work together. They believe I want to snatch their business because I met them in the business. They see me as a black sheep in this industry. So, I have decided to remain solo, keep to myself, and do my business.
It gladdens my heart to tell you that I am the district governor of morticians and funeral directors in Nigeria. I cannot even work because my colleagues do not want to join the train. My ascending the position was inaugurated in South Africa. I wish I could work with the support of my colleagues, especially the Lagos-based ones. Some people are encouraging me and they are from Ibadan. I am licensed but most of them in Lagos are not.
Who licensed you?
I am a professional. I have my licence from the UK. In Nigeria, we do not have a regulating body. I want a regulatory body but it has been difficult. The Health Ministry handles the regulation but they do not have a professional who is a mortuary scientist or a licensed mortician to help them set the standards. Being the District Governor now, I have been trying to call in people together by organising seminars, conferences to let them know what we are losing by not coming together.
What is your experience like working on the bodies recovered from the Synagogue of All Nations (SOAN) church building collapse?
When I was called upon to work on Associated Airline and I saw Tunji, it was the saddest day for me on this job. He was a nice and honest man but died for what he loved doing. However, during the South Africa mishap at the Synagogue, we got the bodies in bad forms. So, we had to try our best to present the bodies to them (South Africa government). I got an Excellence Award some weeks ago from the effort. My job was really appreciated. It was so stressful, but thank God we came out victorious.
Do bodies talk to you?
I would say strange but true. There are signs I notice that motivate me to do the work. I tailor my embalment to the needs of the bodies on my table. Because the body will actually tell me what he or she needs. If they died with typhoid, you cannot embalm someone that died of typhoid with someone that died of motor accident. They are two different types of embalment and that is why TOS Funeral is different from others. This aspect of talking is strange but true.
In that case, have you come across some bodies that told you who killed them and how you can help them track the killers?
No. It is not like that. It is something better experienced than told. They do not talk like I want to eat or drink. But will indicate how they want to be handled etc. It is strange but true. They do not talk of their killers. I do not know of such. It is a bloody lie that a mortician can track killers through dialogue with a body. We are not Necromancers. We are professionals. If someone (a body) comes to my table, there must be an autopsy. So, it is through the autopsy that they would know the cause of the person’s death. Tracking killers is not one of our strange but true stories.
What are your disappointments?
Let me just say it could be better. If I go on, I would not stop because I could step on toes. TOS would be everywhere because one cannot stop learning. I do courses at least twice or thrice a year. I need my continued education unit to stay on the register as a licensed person. If not for my age I can pack my bag and go back. But if I am not on date on the register, I would not be able to work. I have to update myself professionally. We have only five mortuary scientists in Nigeria. Four licensed from the UK and one from the US. Two of these five are from TOS.
What is your suggestion to the Federal Government concerning your profession in this clime of change?
I am trying to organise educational session in Nigeria. We would embark on this as soon as we are ready for them in Nigeria. I am going to have my first board meeting with them in the US in August. I want to thank the National Association of Funeral Directors and Morticians from South Africa for appreciating what we did during the church building collapse. Also, I thank the funeral directors from the US for appreciating me and making me the first governor of District 11. I also thank the Lagos State government for giving us the opportunity to serve them.
All these are indicators that TOS knows and sets standards. TOS Funerals is a recognised member of both the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association (NFDMA), and the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) in the United States. As such, our practices are bound by the regulations of these professional associations. Furthermore, as the MD/CEO of TOS Funerals, I am a recognised member of the 100 Black Women of Funeral Service in the United States. We hypodermic the body, both the organ and the tissue. Embalment means trying to preserve the body from decomposing very fast.