For a man whose business thrives on the dead, Mr. Tunji Okusanya, has got his caskets full. A son of a carpenter, he strode into the funeral services landscape in Nigeria like a colossus, and pioneered elegance and grandeur in funeral ceremonies, thereby setting lofty standards in the industry. Beyond being an undertaker, his company, MIC, where he is the CEO, is also involved in embalming, burial and cremation of the dead. In this August 2013 interview, Mr. Okusanya shares with Abike Akintuyi, Safety Record’s Contributing Editor, the security and safe practice in running a funeral home. N.B: Mr. Okusanya died in a plane crash three months on October 3, 2013. Excerpts.
How long has MIC been around?
MIC has been around for a while. It started from a parent company called Magbamowo Industrial Company, and I formed the current MIC in 1982.
I learnt you took over from your parents?
Yes, from my dad. My father was a carpenter, and this, MIC, is part of the carpentry, artistic carpentry.
Most of the funerals you undertake are usually high profile funerals…
(Cuts in) No, don’t say that. Why would you say high-profile? I work for everybody, and I don’t classify myself that I work for the high profile people. There is dignity in death. It is just simply how you die.
You have been in this business for quite a while. What are the peculiar challenges you face in the course of doing your job?
It is the norm in every job; everyday is different. You accustom yourself to different happenings on a daily basis, and whatever happens is what you get used to. As individuals, we are different. Professionally, A is different from B. The way you handle a Yoruba funeral is different from the way you handle an Igbo funeral. A Christian funeral is different from a Muslim funeral, and cremation is different from interment.
You made mention of cremation. The Lagos State Government recently signed burial by cremation into law. What is your take on it?
Cremation has been on for over twenty to thirty years. It is just that people are just getting aware of it. The law is not compulsory, neither is it binding. It is just another way of burial, and the Lagos State Government just created the awareness of it. It was like a taboo and the people did not want to talk about it, but we have to talk about it. It is an alternate burial. It is just that some may not like it.
Are your undertakers specially trained for the rigours of this job?
They do not have to be trained. When you carry corpses every day, your body will adjust to it. They don’t sit down, everyone stands. No one sits down at MIC, I don’t sit down. That is how they are trained.
If an individual dies, and there are speculations on the cause of his death, probably from communicable disease, do you request for the medical report before you begin to work on the corpse?
Before you bury anybody, you have to get a medical report. An autopsy will be done by the doctor that will state the cause of the death, and this will be registered at the local government before the body is cleared from burial. So, irrespective of the kind of death, it is entitled to a burial.
So, would you reject any corpse for your safety…
(Cuts in) Why? My profession is to bury. Look at the recent example of the Boston bomber in America. The people there were saying why would the undertaker collect the body to perform a burial. They said they don’t want him buried in their neighborhood. The man said, he is the funeral director, and his job is to bury people.
Do you find it necessary to request for security during funeral outings, because there are cases where there are fights among the family members that do disrupt the funeral ceremonies?
Why would I request for security, am I going to fight? It is the family that requests for security. They would have resolved the issues before they call us. It is always the case that where there is friction within them, they would have covered themselves, and by covering themselves, they have covered us. So, since the family wants the body buried, they provide security.
What are the risks of being an undertaker or running a funeral home?
What kind of risks, I don’t understand. Will the dead person wake up? (laughs). There are no risks. If we undertake any funeral procession, the driver carrying the coffin has to be at alert. He must not drink. You know there was a time when the musicians were having accidents and dying. What happens is, when these musicians go about to drink, instead of the driver to be resting when they are playing, he would be drinking with them. And when they are ready to go, he would be tired, and the driver ought not to be tired. So, there are just man-made risks in this business that could be avoided; sleeping, drinking, making calls on the road.
Do you think the country has enough undertakers to cope with the rising demands of specialised funeral services?
You have to learn the trade before you come into it and there are people doing it. Nigeria has over 200 million people; you don’t want them to die now. There are quite some people doing it now, at least relatively.
Is there any special course one has to do before he can begin to cremate because a friend in the United States told me he wanted to go for a degree to study more on cremation…
(Cuts in) Why would he want to go to school to learn about cremation? Maybe he wants to go to school to learn about funeral services and not cremation. A funeral director has to learn about all the bits of the job. Cremation is the final interment, the final disposal of the body. It is just like when you get a body from the mortuary, and you do the wake keeping and all the rest. Then when you ought to bury the body that is when cremation comes in. So instead of putting the corpse into the ground, you put it into the incinerator. So what do you want to go and study in that?
Okay, still on cremation, I know that when you cremate, the body will be burnt into ashes…
“Have you seen one before?”
…No, oh, in films
“Do you want to see one?”
No, thanks. Don’t you think some people may be careless with the ashes, because I learnt that some people sprinkle the ashes along the road, in the sea, or anywhere that catches their fancy. Don’t you think it may constitute an environmental hazard?
It is what they want, and it is not an environmental hazard. When you burn something, it doesn’t have any effect again. You have killed all the bacteria, everything in it. It is just dust. Does dust have any environmental pollution, except it is polluted dust? Cremation remains are just dust.
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