Dubai: Embalmer for 46 years opens up on job of preserving bodies

The Indian expat was one of the most experienced mortuary staff in the country when he retired


Ashwani Kumar

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Published: Fri 25 Aug 2023, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Sat 26 Aug 2023, 11:58 AM

For 46 years of his life, Ataulah Abubakar Kazi gave final touches to dead bodies in the UAE. Working as an embalmer, the 71-year-old Indian expat, dutifully prepared the mortal remains for their final rites.

One of the most experienced mortuary staff in the country, Kazi called it a day on July 30 after serving at Al Maktoum Hospital and Sonapur Medical Fitness Centre. Talking to Khaleej Times, Kazi poured his heart out on taking up such a responsible yet unusual job, his nature of work, the challenges faced, and what the future holds for him.

“We were a family of 10 children with two brothers and eight sisters. My father had died, my mother was there, and my elder brother was working in Bombay (currently known as Mumbai). Once I passed my Grade 10 exams, I flew to Dubai in search of a job in 1974. I worked as an electrician for two years. Meanwhile, I got married. In 1977, I joined the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) as a mortuary staff at Al Maktoum Hospital. It is Dubai’s first and oldest hospital,” Kazi said in an exclusive interview.

It’s not unusual for people to apply for a job without knowing much about their roles. However, Kazi was fully aware and had no inhibitions or fear in handling dead bodies.

“In Bombay, we used to live near railway tracks, and I have helped remove bodies during accidents. I wasn’t scared.”

Asked about how his family reacted to his new job, especially his wife Naseem, he said: “They came to know about my job much later. My wife, well, she was already married to me by then.”

As he had no prior experience, it was on-the-job training for Kazi, who immediately learned the art of embalming, which fetched him a monthly salary of Dh1,600.

“Embalming protects and preserves a dead body for funeral and last rites. A body has to be embalmed before repatriation. In the initial days, my seniors tested my mental ability. They embalmed and asked me to watch and learn. They also wanted to see if I got scared or collapsed. Our team of 6 people included a few from India and Pakistan.”

In 2009, when Al Maktoum Hospital was closed for renovation, embalming services were relocated to Sonapur Medical Fitness Centre, where Kazi was the in-charge till his retirement.

Explaining embalming process

Kazi noted that the embalming process requires different skill sets and techniques.

“I was taught to make a small cut on the right side of the lower neck and to inject formaldehyde-based embalming fluid into the arteries. This step slows decomposition. Then blood is drained, and we stitch that incision. Then another cut is made in the abdomen to suck all food waste and bodily fluid from the intestines. This process helps in preserving the body for longer hours. Then the incision is closed. We will then wash and dress the body to be placed in a coffin. All this is a manual work done by our hands.”

In the case of a normal death, the embalming process takes between 30 and 45 minutes, whereas, in instances of accident and suicide, it could stretch beyond 90 minutes to make the body recognisable.

“In an accident case, we stitch injured areas to ensure embalming fluid doesn’t come out of those gaps. There are cases when the head would have been smashed. We will have to fill the head to make the face presentable and stitch it up. At times, a limb would have been severed. The process of making such bodies fit for embalming may take up to 90 minutes.”

Kazi noted that the handling decomposed body always presented a major challenge as it was nearly impossible to give a lifelike appearance.

“Usually, decomposition happens when a person has died but neighbours would come to know only after the strong rotten smell starts emitting from the body. In such cases, we spray embalming chemicals on top of the body as there is no scope to inject fluid. Such cases are quite difficult to handle, but we do our best as their loved ones will be waiting to see the body one last time. In suicide cases, the tongue slips out after death. So, we have to manage to get the face in order.”

Kazi pointed out that he has been fortunate not to handle any bodies of near and dear ones.

“But there have been cases of embalming PROs, who used to get paperwork done during deaths of other people, and now would be lying in front of me as a corpse.”

No count on bodies handled

Apart from Abu Dhabi, all emirates depend on the Sonapur centre for embalming service. But Kazi has kept no count on how many bodies he has embalmed. Neither he remembers his first case nor the last one. Though the centre works in two shifts of 7 am to 3 pm and 1 pm to 9 pm, he has obliged embalming requests in the wee hours of the morning, at the dead of the night, and on his day offs too.

“I don’t know a figure, but when I started, there were 20 to 25 cases a month at Al Maktoum Hospital, where we had a team of 5-6 people, but they left. We have six staff members at the Sonapur centre. But now on an odd day, you get up to 25 bodies. On average, we receive 8 to 10 bodies a day and between 250 to 300 in a month,” he highlighted.

Among the celebrities, he recollected cases of Indian actors Farooq Sheikh and Sridevi, being embalmed at Sonapur.

Social workers play a key role

Kazi pointed out the role played by social workers in repatriation and getting the necessary paperwork done for furnishing an embalming certificate, which until last month were approved and signed by him, and are needed for a body to be flown out of the UAE.

“Over the years, I have built strong friendships with all social workers, who are involved with repatriation. They play a key role in getting the exhaustive paperwork done. Vidhyadharan (Ereuthinad) is the oldest known person, along with C.P. Mathew, who, I think, left the country. These two used to help the community since my days at Al Maktoum Hospital. Vidhyadharan is still active. Now, we have lots of people, prominent among them being Ashraf (Thamarassery) and Naseer (Vatanappally). Now there is a healthy competition to do social service. Also, I see a lot of social media promotion for the work they do. It’s good they are spreading the word on the importance of social work and reaching out to the new generation.”

How about a UAE Golden visa?

Dubai Academic Health Corporation arranged a farewell for him. Though, he is adjusting to his new life but already missing his work routine.

“I have worked for 46 years. My last drawn salary was Dh11,000. I still get phone calls from PROs for embalming. People are surprised that I have quit this profession. It’s been such a long journey. One day, I wish to return to India. But we have lost our home in Mumbai. My three children, two daughters, and a son, are married and well-settled. I will continue to live in Dubai. I wish to get a coveted UAE Golden Visa. I hope our job gets considered in the healthcare or a special category.”

And to anyone, who wishes to join this field, Kazi recommended studying a proper course and certification.

“This job has good scope in the West. You get paid well but ensure proper training from a good institution. This job will always remain unless some crazy robot gets created for the purpose,” Kazi chuckled.


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