Dealing With The Dead
Sooner or later, everyone comes face to face with death. For some though, it is an everyday occurrence. Morticians and medical examiners in particular deal with the dead in a way that most people will never experience. Their reality is that of other people's nightmares and morbid curiosities. To learn more, I sat down with a professional in order to find out what life inside the morgue is like.
HB: How did you get into this line of work?
MW: I have always loved learning about the human body since I was old enough to be read to. My dad would read books about human biology to me as a kid. I’ve also been very interested and intrigued by death. I studied in college using preserved cadavers. I loved the intricacy of dissection and wanted to do it as a full-time job. Upon my research, I stumbled across this role and then went for a job and got it. One of the best decisions of my life, it’s the best job ever; every day is different, and you never know what you’ll find at the door, in the fridge, in the body bag, or in the body itself.
HB: What are your responsibilities?
MW: My role is to take in any deceased person who died suddenly or unexpectedly, e.g. gentleman found dead in bed, woman found decomposed in her cellar after a few months, young boy gets hit by a car, old lady suddenly collapses in a supermarket, man chokes to death on chicken, woman falls into river and drowns, young man hangs himself, and also murders and suspicious deaths. When they are in our care, we do viewings and perform post mortem examinations with the pathologist.
My specific roles here for the deceased are: undress, weigh and measure them, cut them open and remove their organs, stitch them back up once the examination is over, clean and shower them and wash their hair, dry and dress them in a shroud. We then work with morticians to release them into the care of the funeral director that the family has chosen.
HB: Do you work in a funeral home or hospital?
MW: I have worked in both public mortuaries and hospitals.
HB: What do you do with bodies that are disfigured beyond recognition?
MW: We have had a lot of mangled bodies come in, usually people who have jumped under trains. I remember one case where the body was so severely traumatized that we couldn't even identify limbs or body parts. All I could find and recognize was a nose and half of a foot with toes. (There was another occasion once where I was sifting through a bag trying to find organs for the pathologist, and I found an intact eyeball. They are so resilient!) With that poor person, all we could do was pick out the bits of stone and gravel, lay a shroud on the top of the body parts which had been placed into a clean body bag, and zip it up.
Normally though, you can sort of see what's going on, in which case, we will do our best to reconstruct the deceased. It can take up to a few hours, but it is so worth it. You go from a pile of body parts thinking, "what on earth can I see, let alone do?" to the body being viewable for their loved ones. If an arm is disrupted, we stitch up any injuries. If it has come off and is too mangled but we can tell it's an arm, I would wrap it up in a bag and padding, then place it into the sleeve of the shroud, so at least it's in the correct anatomical position, despite not being whole or touchable. This is the same for legs.
For the head, the skull is often smashed. We would fill the skull, as usual, with wadding and padding to give it shape and form, then try to puzzle the skull back together as best as possible. We have special fine thread to stitch delicate facial injuries so that it's less visible. Sometimes though, there's not much you can do and the deceased may look too injured to be viewable, but we still reconstruct them for dignity and respect. Everyone still gets washed and cleaned and shrouded though, no matter how disrupted. We do the best we can by stitching and trying to arrange the body in the correct anatomical position, so you don't have a piece of foot at the top of the bag near the head, for example. It's all about respect and doing the best you can, given the circumstances.
With decomposing cases, there’s often not much we can do apart from we don’t wash them with water sprays, as it can take their skin off in layers, so we pat them dry gently instead. Talcum powder can slightly prevent skin tearing from stitches, but with decomposing bodies, mainly we just remove as many maggots as possible and shroud them before placing them in a clean body bag.
HB: How does your work affect you emotionally?
MW: It doesn’t really, which is why I can do the job. I think people who would be very sad all the time would not do the job because it would be unbearable. Some cases of course do get to you and tug your heartstrings, but most of the time we are very professional and dignified and get on with the job.
HB: Do you have nightmares?
MW: I have never had a nightmare about work but I do dream about work a lot. It will be me during post mortems, and I’m trying to stitch a head but it won’t go back together nicely, something like that. My boyfriend often says that I talk about work in my sleep, stuff like "where’s my PM40?" (the knife we use to remove organs) and about maggots. I remember he once said that I sat up and shouted, "I’M NOT EMILY" during the week of a particularly gruesome murder we did when the victim was a young lady, let’s say her name was Emily, and I must have been dreaming that we had gotten mixed up.
HB: How has your relationship with death evolved since you started your job?
MW: At the start, I actively tried to consider my own mortality because I thought that I should. I was seeing death on a day to day basis, and it was something I believed I should think about. However, what comes more naturally is considering the mortality of those close to me. I am now so, so aware of how they won't be around forever. I see people the same age as those close to me dying every day, with normal lives and the same sort of pathologies and lifestyles, and it makes me worry.
You always think disasters happen to other people, you never think your parent could leave for work and die at work, or your brother could be in a house fire, or your grandma could be hit by a truck, but it does happen. People wake up every day, choose their outfit, and die; they don't realize that that's the outfit they'll die in, the last time they'll brush their teeth, the socks and shoes that a mortuary technician will be untying and rolling up into a property bag to hand to an mortician in a week's time. I now see my family's unhealthy habits, and I worry a lot about what unseen damage is taking place inside of their bodies.
But myself? I don't worry, because when I die, I won't know about it. The main difference I've made is I keep on top of my toe nail polish and try to wear nicer underwear, so that if I suddenly end up dead, at least I won't be in embarrassing pants and my nails will be perfect forever.
HB: Did you have other morbid propensities before taking the job?
MW: Very much so. From around the age of 9, I would lock myself in the bathroom and read my dad’s serial killer books that I had taken from the top bookshelf and was fascinated. As I grew up, around the age of 12, this fascination matured into an interest in forensic pathology, built from my aforementioned love of the human body from a young age. I suppose this job is an amalgamation of all of that.
HB: What is something most people don't know about dead bodies?
MW: A decomposing and mummified body smells like beef jerky and fish sauce! That’s one most people hopefully don’t know about!
HB: What is the most common misconception people have about your job?
MW: People can’t believe that we aren’t all creepy unsociable men, and people really struggle with us being bubbly and happy women. They expect us to be sombre and very depressed all the time! It’s a fun job, and while our jokes are never ever at the expense of the deceased and we always treat them with care and dignity, we do have a laugh with each other. You have to, because if you focused on the sadness of the job, you wouldn’t last. We even chat to the deceased and comment and things like that, e.g. I’ll apologize if I accidentally drop their arm onto the tray, or say “that’s a lovely shirt, sir” or “someone loved you, miss” if they come in with a flower laid on their chest.
HB: What's the most unique request a family has given you to do with the body?
MW: We once had a couple who died in a car crash. The woman was heavily pregnant. We had to remove the baby at post mortem obviously, and we cleaned it up and put it in a little onesie. The families of the deceased asked if we could place the baby in the mom’s arms for a day, then in the dad’s arms for a day, and alternate like that. So I guess that was pretty surreal, a whole family being deceased and us holding the baby before they ever got to. It was really horrendous.
HB: Being a mortician, what do you want done with your body after you die?
MW: Regarding my after-death wishes, my preference in order is, and always has been: donate my organs, donate to medical science, cremation. If my body can't be of any use for saving lives or research/learning, then I want to be burned. I've seen decomposing bodies, and I would not want that underground in a coffin for me.
Regarding after-death care, I would hope that I get a nice technician. Most of them are. I try to think of ways that I could alert the technician to the fact that I do their job too, as I feel they would be extra careful with my post mortem if they were aware! But again, what concerns me is the care that my loved ones receive when they die. When the worst happens, I know that I will phone the mortuary, explain my job, and ask them to take special care of my loved ones because I know what should go on and what to look for. I will also send a letter and photo to be kept with them at all times, because I know that technicians take extra care when the deceased is personalized and made more into a person with a family and feelings, rather than just a body.
HB: Do you believe in an afterlife? If so, what does it look like?
MW: I do, purely because when I see the body in front of me, it’s a shell. It’s not someone’s grandfather, or mom, or baby, or sibling. That life and soul and personality and being is gone, disappeared, and the body is just a body. I really hope that it’s because the person and who they are has left to go somewhere else, because that would explain how people look so different in death and how people can pinpoint exactly when someone passes away.
It’s also more comforting to think that we have something more to look forward to! I don’t believe in ghosts though, and nothing creepy along those lines has ever happened at work, although the mortuary can be an eerie place, especially at night in the dark!
Read other great interviews in the 'Questions With' series
- Harry W. Brodsky
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