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City Mortuary: Had no competition… until Charles Njonjo feared lying next to pimps, pagans and prostitutes!

The late former Attorney General Charles Njonjo introduced funeral homes in Kenya but chose cremation when St Peter finally makes his roll call

Dead serious: The late former Attorney General Charles Njonjo had mortal fear of being taken to the City Mortuary if he dropped dead. Besides its funereal and poorly done interiors, the mortuary lacked privacy, waiting areas for the bereaved and open spaces and gardens.  Though currently being renovated, the City Mortuary lacked adequate circulation (of air and people), security, lighting and ventilation.

By Mbatia wa Njambi

Visiting Thinker

The City Mortuary in Nairobi had no competition. For the better part of 65 years, it was the only one in the grave business of handling stiffs. That was until Attorney General Charles Njonjo-who has never used matatus in his life- feared dying and being preserved there alongside pimps, pastors, prostitutes, pagans and not a few chicken thieves, fornicators and recipients of mob justice.

And so it goes, when Njonjo was chair of the Nairobi Hospital, he mooted the idea of a funeral home fit for a Prince of the blood like himself.

Njonjo, who died at 101 years this Sunday, approached John Lee, an experienced coroner and that was how the Lee Funeral Home was established in 1987, the year famed criminal lawyer, S.M. Otieno died and his widow, the late Wambui Otieno was entangled in a seven month long burial dispute, the bus stop next to City Mortuary was nicknamed ‘Stage ya SM.”

Despite being a millionaire many times over, his body was lying on the floor at the City Mortuary next to burglars

The dead stay dumb: When populist politician JM Kariuki was assassinated in March 1975, there were no funeral homes or parlous in Kenya. Despite being a millionaire many times over, his body was picked from Ngong forest and left lying on the floor at the City Mortuary next to road accident victims. That waking reality bothered Charles Njonjo to death!

Njonjo, like most Kenyans was following the proceedings and the reality that he could die and be stuffed with cotton at the City Mortuary so shivered him, today, his portrait hangs at the Lee Funeral Home as a pointer to his business foresight.  

Kenya now has many funeral homes courtesy of the over 100 year old Njonjo-who funny enough chose cremation when St Peter finally makes his roll call.

Before then, the rich and famous were all refrigerated at the City Mortuary whose litany of complaints ran from overcrowding, malfunctioning cold room machines, broken fridge handles and worn out temperature gauges.

Jomo Kenyatta’s body is “cleaned up” including a change of suits at the City Mortuary

Well tucked in: The state funeral of founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta on August 31, 1978 was not without stints at the City Mortuary where his body was embalmed in the dead of night. And before his annual memorial services, Jomo’s body is “cleaned up” with “professional re-touch” including a change of suits. That always happened at the City Mortuary under the watch of the military, according to Lt-General Daniel Opande, the military staffer who oversaw ceremonies when Mzee died. But the late Charles Njonjo never wanted anything to do with the place!

With more funeral homes opening in the country, the City Mortuary gradually began facing stiff competition that won’t die anytime soon. 

Dr David Wanjohi, Head of City Mortuary, laments that customers have dwindled from 30 a day since he joined in 1993 when “they could not fit in our fridges and would be all over the floor,” he told Business Daily and the living were forced to “find alternative mortuaries or bury as fast as possible.”

First class service to the bereaved of Kenya’s Who’s Who

Catch me dead elsewhere: John Lee, a former police man, had experience dealing with the dead. After all, he had worked at the Coroner’s Office dealing with pathologists and undertakers at the Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, England.  The late Charles Njonjo picked Lee, who was born and educated in Kenya, to establish Kenya’s first funeral home at the Nairobi Hospital in 1987. The Lee Funeral Home has since offered “first class service to the bereaved” of Kenya’s Who’s Who.

The City Mortuary currently averages five stiffs a day in the public wing and two in the private one and the competition eating Wanjohi’s lunch are private funeral homes including Lee, Montezuma, Umash, Chiromo Funeral Parlour and Kenyatta University Funeral Home.

Most Kenyans now prefer them for their convenience, extra facilities like chapels, ample parking and more professional, dignified services.

Kenyans now prefer funeral homes with a chapel, viewing bay, lounges, canteen, ample parking

Dying for good service: Dr David Wanjohi, Head of City Mortuary says the facility is facing stiff competition from funeral homes which were allowed to issue burial permits, previously the preserve of the City Mortuary. Most funeral homes like Kenyatta University, Montenzuma are strategically located along major highways. People from Western Kenya are also using funeral homes near bypasses instead of City Mortuary whose location is clogged with traffic jams.

From over 4000 bodies annually in 2016, Wanjohi says they currently handle slightly over 2000 stiffs. Also eating into profits are unclaimed bodies which are preserved, transported and buried at the City Mortuary’s expense due to negligence by police to take finger prints of victims and broken family ties in locating next of kin.

But the pandemic and restrictions of movement saw many opting for quick burials at Lang’ata Cemetery pushing number of bodies handled to between 120 and 170 a month since March 2020

City Mortuary cannot be closed as it’s the only place cops take unknown bodies

Dead End: The location of the City Mortuary has seen business divert to Kenyatta University Funeral Home along the Thika Superhighway, a major artery for mourners heading to Central Kenya and the larger mountain region. This saves them the logistical nightmare of snaking through city traffic to not only the City Mortuary, but also the Chiromo Funeral Parlour too.
Kenyatta University Funeral Home also has a 100-seater chapel, a viewing bay, spacious green grounds, sitting areas, lounges, a flower shop, canteen and ample parking.

When all is said and buried, Wanjohi reckons the City Mortuary cannot be closed as it’s the only place cops can take unknown bodies. But what is still alive is that it will continue facing breathing competition from the likes of the ‘five star’ General Kago Funeral Home which cost Sh300 million to construct in Thika, Kiambu County, where it boasts of modern cold rooms, parking for 100 cars.

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