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Dubai’s 46-year embalmer reveals body preservation secrets

Ataulah Abubakar Kazi dedicated 46 years of his life to tending to deceased bodies in the UAE. As an embalmer, this 71-year-old Indian expatriate meticulously prepared mortal remains for their final ceremonies.

As one of the most seasoned mortuary staff members in the nation, Kazi concluded his career on July 30, having served at both Al Maktoum Hospital and Sonapur Medical Fitness Centre. In an interview with Khaleej Times, Kazi candidly shared his experiences, discussing the responsibilities and intricacies of his unconventional profession, the challenges he encountered, and his thoughts on the road ahead.

“In our family, there were 10 children, including two brothers and eight sisters. My father had passed away, my mother was alive, and my elder brother was employed in Bombay (now called Mumbai). After completing my Grade 10 exams, I came to Dubai in 1974, searching for work. I spent two years working as an electrician. During this time, I also got married. Then, in 1977, I joined the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) as a mortuary staff member at Al Maktoum Hospital, which is the first and oldest hospital in Dubai,” Kazi shared in an exclusive interview.

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 explained the intricate embalming process, which involves various skills and techniques.

“I was trained to make a small incision on the lower right side of the neck and inject formaldehyde-based embalming fluid into the arteries. This step slows decomposition. After draining the blood, we close the incision. Another cut is made in the abdomen to remove waste and fluids, aiding preservation. The incision is then closed. We wash and dress the body before placing it in a coffin. All these steps require manual labor.”

Embalming typically takes 30 to 45 minutes for regular deaths, but in accidents or suicides, it can extend beyond 90 minutes to maintain recognition.

“In accidents, we stitch injured areas to prevent fluid leaks. For head injuries, we fill and stitch to restore appearance. Severed limbs also require attention, taking up to 90 minutes.”

Handling decomposed bodies is challenging, as restoring a lifelike appearance is tough. “Decomposition often occurs later, with the smell following. We apply embalming chemicals on the body’s surface. Handling this is tough, but we do our best as loved ones want a final viewing. In suicides, we restore appearances, as tongues may protrude postmortem. “Kazi mentioned his fortune in not embalming close relatives. “There were instances of embalming professionals turned lifeless bodies, who had previously managed paperwork for others’ deaths.”

No count on bodies handled

Across all emirates except Abu Dhabi, the Sonapur center serves as the hub for embalming services. However, Kazi hasn’t kept track of the number of bodies he’s embalmed. He can’t recall his first or last case. Despite the center’s operating hours of 7 am to 3 pm and 1 pm to 9 pm in two shifts, Kazi has responded to embalming requests in the early morning, late at night, and even on his days off.

“I can’t provide an exact number, but when I started, there were around 20 to 25 cases monthly at Al Maktoum Hospital, where our team comprised 5-6 members, though they left. At the Sonapur center, we have six staff members. However, on certain days, we handle up to 25 bodies. On average, we receive 8 to 10 bodies daily, totaling between 250 to 300 per month,” he pointed out.

He also recalled instances of embalming celebrities like Indian actors Farooq Sheikh and Sridevi at Sonapur.

Social workers play a key role

Kazi emphasized the crucial role social workers play in facilitating repatriation and handling the necessary paperwork, including obtaining embalming certificates. Until last month, these certificates were approved and signed by him, a requirement for transporting a body out of the UAE.

“Over time, I’ve formed strong bonds with all the social workers involved in repatriation. They are instrumental in managing the extensive paperwork. Vidhyadharan (Ereuthinad) and C.P. Mathew are among the most experienced individuals, with Vidhyadharan still actively engaged.

These two individuals have been contributing to the community since my tenure at Al Maktoum Hospital. Presently, there’s a growing number of people engaged in this work, notably Ashraf (Thamarassery) and Naseer (Vatanappally).

A healthy competition for social service has emerged. I’ve also noticed a significant presence on social media, where they promote their work. It’s positive that they’re raising awareness about the significance of social work and connecting with the younger generation.”

How about a UAE Golden visa?

Dubai Academic Health Corporation organized a farewell event for him. While he’s adapting to his new life, he already misses his familiar work routine.

“I’ve dedicated 46 years to this profession. My last salary was Dh11,000. Even now, I receive calls from PROs for embalming. People are surprised by my decision to leave this profession. It’s been a remarkable journey. I aspire to return to India someday, although we’ve lost our home in Mumbai. My three children, two daughters, and a son, are happily married and settled. I’ll continue residing in Dubai. I hope to obtain the prestigious UAE Golden Visa, ideally with our occupation recognized within the healthcare or a special category.”

For those interested in entering this field, Kazi advised pursuing proper education and certification.

“This profession offers promising opportunities in the Western world. The pay is rewarding, but ensure you receive comprehensive training from a reputable institution. This occupation will persist unless some eccentric robot takes over,” Kazi chuckled.

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