Yes, we grew up to meet those things, and that is why for me, I haven’t known anything different from this kind of work. There has never been a time to fear because that is all we have always known from as early as I could remember. Then, even at that young age, we would go to my dad’s work place, and be playing around caskets. And you know children enjoy doing hide and seek. So, for my (late) brother and I, we would go and hide inside one of the caskets in the office, because we believed that was the last place for anybody to check while looking for us. We did it when we didn’t want anybody to send us on an errand and we did it for ourselves when playing. There was nothing scary about caskets and my dad didn’t care seeing us play like that. He believed that anything that can’t speak has no power over you. So, if somebody has died, he believed the person was gone. We saw it like that as well, so, there was no reason to fear.
A Nigerian woman who dresses dead bodies up has spoken up about the hazards of the job and what her family thinks about it.
Mrs. Bolanle Okusanya-Feyita, the eldest child of the late founder of MIC Funeral Services, Mr. Tunji Okusanya, in this interview with The Punch, talks about her growing up, education and some misconceptions people have about working with the ‘dead’
Children are known to dread the sight of caskets, corpses and other things related to funerals. You grew up to meet these things around you, what was it like?
It appeared your grandfather started the business, and now after your dad, you also went into it. Was it by choice or he encouraged you to continue?
My grandfather started it in 1946, before my dad was born in 1955. He was a carpenter and later went into making caskets, which he did very well. His company then was Magbamowo Industrial Company. I was told that when my dad came back from the United Kingdom, he started working with his father. Later, my dad set up his own company on the same street and named it MIC, which is an acronym of his dad’s company’s name, but my dad added some glamour, structure, coordination and finesse into it. I’m proud of the heritage I have and he would always say that it was the same money from selling caskets (owo posi in Yoruba) that he used to send us to school. I worked for my dad for about 20 years, starting from when I was about 16, while my younger brother started when he was around 12. But because I lived in the UK, some people didn’t realise the extent of my work for my dad. Nigerians are all over the world and if they die and are to be brought back to Nigeria, there is a diplomatic process to that. That was my work, coupled with the fact that I was a make-up artist. But when they died, I had to come back.
Knowing that children can be mischievous, when you were young, like in primary school, did your friends make jest of you?
At that time, we didn’t have full understanding of everything that the work entailed. All that mattered then was that our parents worked. Besides, we were not brought up to talk about our home. In secondary school, we rarely talked about it and if there was need to, we could say he was a funeral director, and even with that, people would think it was about the glamour around it, not knowing he carried dead bodies and dressed them. But it wasn’t really something I talked about a lot. So, that helped.
You attended Ivy League schools in the UK, have you always known that you would still go back to the funeral business?
When I was to have my first degree, I just knew I had to go to the university, not that I had a concrete plan on what to do. I went to Imperial College London where I did International Business and I had second class upper division. Then I went to Westminster Business School in University of Westminster for my Master’s in Marketing Communication. When I was younger, I wanted to be a lawyer and I used to tell my maternal grandmother. When I got to England, I did some law courses in the short run and I found that Law wasn’t for me, because you have to write so much. That was unlike me. I didn’t like writing. So I wrote a letter to my grandmother that I wasn’t going to be a lawyer anymore. She was sad and couldn’t believe it, and she wrote back. I changed the course anyway, and I found International Business interesting. It’s diverse and it has wide applications. When I graduated, I worked for different companies in the UK, whilst doing my make-up business. For me, the whole essence of going to school was to learn how to think and do things better.
Did you leave the UK for Nigeria mainly because of your dad’s death?
When my dad and my brother died in that plane crash, I had to travel as soon as I could make it. That day, I saw on Sky News as breaking news that there was a plane crash in Nigeria, but I didn’t know they were inside. I felt pity for the family of those involved, not knowing it had a lot to do with me. At that time, nobody had called because it had just happened. It was quite cloudy, so I had to come with the next flight. At that time, remember that it was a sudden incident, there were bookings and different jobs ongoing, so I had to run MIC for a while before I took a break. Before they died, my brother and I had a lot of things in progress, so it was like I lost a part of me. My dad died couple of weeks to his 60th birthday and he was always saying he was getting older, so my brother and I were working towards doing something different. When they died, I wanted something in their memory and that was why I set up LTJ Funerals. Given the circumstances in which they died, I thought it should be something that would testify that beauty can come out of ashes. That, for me, is a very personal scripture. My brother used to have a company called LTJ (short for Olatunji) Prestigious Services, which involved cemetery consultations and properties. So I thought of using his name.
Did your dad talk about his death?
Incidentally, he spoke a lot about death before he died. He asked me about two weeks to the incident if I wouldn’t move to Lagos when he died and I remember telling him that ‘This your dying all the time’ because he used to say ‘when I die’. He died in October, but in July, he sent me some beautiful pictures of himself that he had edited. He was excited about the pictures and he kept calling to ask if I had seen them. I told him the pictures were very nice and they looked like obituary pictures and I asked if he thought he would die soon, but we laughed about it. But that was what we used for him. I even told him it wouldn’t be convenient for me if he died at that time, so he shouldn’t die yet. We laughed about it. But it happened a few months after. The night before the day he died, I still spoke to him and he was giving me instructions on the different caskets he wanted us to buy. In the morning of that same day, my brother also sent me some pictures of an award that he got the previous day and I felt it was too early in the day. I planned to call him to congratulate him later in the day, but that didn’t happen. I wouldn’t say we had premonition of it but by the virtue of the work we do, we all know that everybody will die someday. These days, it is important for people to discuss with their children or dependants how they want to be buried. It prevents conflicts and unnecessary drama. That is the way go, but people think if you have such discussion you are ready to die. It’s not like that.
Not all men would embrace the idea of seeing their wives dealing with the dead. Did you meet your husband in the line of duty?
No. One of my friends, Tara Durotoye, introduced us. That was in 2004. We were both make-up artists and we had been friends not very long when she said to me that there was a guy she wanted me to meet. Then, I used to shuttle between Nigeria and the UK. When I was in Nigeria, people would think I had a relationship in the UK and when in the UK, people would think I had someone I was dating in Nigeria, whereas I didn’t have anyone. For the fact that she was one of my new friends, I didn’t want it to look that I was proud. So I told her to give my number to the person. I just wanted to be polite. The ‘guy’ called me and here we are today. From when we met, he said he wanted to get married and I told him to come off it, because we had barely known each other. He said he was sure he wanted to get married. I said we should court first. Thus, we got married in 2007. It could have been earlier but we ended up in 2007.
Did he know the kind of job you were into?
No, he didn’t. The first time he knew, he was horrified; shocked. He couldn’t believe it, thinking it was a joke. But I told him that was what my dad was into. He was shocked but after a while, he got used to it. It was more so because he had not lost anyone close to him or had a close contact with funerals. And people used to tell him, ‘how can you marry that man’s daughter? Do you know what the man does? Do you know that the man has secret powers, etc. But he got used to it after a while and he became very close to my parents.
Are your children also comfortable with your work?
They see pictures of caskets on my phone all the time. Sometimes, they go with me to events, but they don’t see corpses.
Some people feel it is difficult to do this kind of work without having some spiritual reinforcement. Is that true?
My dad was a Christian; nothing added. All he knew to do was to fast and pray, and he was a member of the choir since when he was six. God is all we have. I think of this work like a calling, in the sense that the underlying thing of what we do is to help people at a very difficult time. The truth is, everybody is going to die. Our relationship does not end with people because they are dead. There is still a duty of care. At the end of the day, somebody has to do it, so why can’t we do it with a lot of excellence and compassion? There is nothing about death, corpses and caskets that is scary.
Does it mean you have never experienced any of the conjectures or experiences where the vehicle conveying a corpse would refuse to move until something was done?
That hasn’t happened to me, but my dad had experienced it before. I wasn’t there, so I wasn’t privy to it, but I heard about it. I’m a born again Christian and that makes a lot of difference. In the foreseeable future, this (funeral service) is what I’ve been called to do. And that is what I want to do. Interestingly, it is not even about the money. The crux of the work is serving people, supporting and helping people.
How has this job impacted your views about life?
Hold nothing tight; everything should be loose in your hands because we are all going to die, just that we don’t know when, unless Jesus comes. There is really nothing that you shouldn’t be able to let go of. People should learn to stay away from anything that could rob them of their peace because once you are dead, that is the end. Everybody looks the same when they are dead, no matter how good looking you were. There is no casket that is the size of a house, so everybody will still be lowered down there. That is why I said it is more of rendering service.
You work mostly on weekends, how do you find time to relax and spend time with your family?
My social life has changed a lot. I can’t even go to all the places I’m invited, so I just trust that my friends and family understand. Any weekend that I’m free, I love to stay with my family and that is exciting. I love to cook. I don’t have as much time as I would have liked to but I still cook. My family is priority. Regardless of how busy I am, I make time for my family. In the schedule of things, God first, then my family and everything else.