Michelle Williams is young and attractive, with close family ties, a busy social life . . . and an unusual occupation. When she impulsively applies to be a mortuary technician and is offered the position, she has no idea that her decision to accept will be one of the most momentous of her life. “What I didn’t realize then," she writes, “was that I was about to start one of the most amazing jobs you can do.” To Williams, life in the mortuary is neither grim nor frightening. She introduces readers to a host of unique characters: pathologists (many eccentric, some utterly crazy), undertakers, and the man from the coroner’s office who sings to her every morning. No two days are alike, and while Williams’s sensitivity to the dead never wavers, her tales from the crypt range from mischievous to downright shocking.
Readers won't forget the fitness fanatic run over while doing nighttime push-ups on the road, the man so large he had to be carted in via refrigerated truck, or the guide dog who led his owner onto railway tracks—and left him there. The indomitable Williams never bats an eye, even as she is confronted—daily—with situations that would leave the rest of us speechless.
“This entertaining memoir chronicles the author’s first year on the job, which sees her learning how to perform a postmortem, determine cause of death, and deal with grieving relatives and shady undertakers (among a lot of other things) . . . Not your run-of-the-mill occupational memoir, but definitely an interesting one.” —Booklist
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My first day as a mortuary technician began on a bright, clear but cold morning in early March. Thirty years of age, until now with no clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life, I had fallen into working with people who were no longer breathing. I was to start work at the other of the two mortuaries in Gloucestershire, the one that I had never before even known existed; because of this, I spent ages just trying to find out where I was supposed to report for work, because hospitals tend not to advertise where mortuaries and body stores are, for obvious reasons (and other reasons that are perhaps not so obvious until you become familiar with life in the mortuary).
I walked around the hospital at least twice looking for it. I eventually went into Accident & Emergency reception and introduced myself to the receptionist, who looked at me blankly when I asked for directions. After shuffling off, he returned and said someone would be over to collect me. Now I felt that I'd made completely the wrong move. What had I done? I had never felt so unwanted or out of place. I stood around like a spare part for ten minutes, looking at the people waiting to be seen in A&E, until the double doors to the waiting room opened and in walked a silver-haired man in his fifties dressed in a long white lab coat. Heading straight for me, he announced my name, shook my hand "Welcome to the hospital." I recognized his eyes and realized this was the same man - Clive - who had demonstrated the post-mortem a couple of weeks ago at my first interview. It was a relief to see a familiar face.
Greetings over, he led me in the direction of the mortuary. He asked how I was feeling, to which the answer was that I wasn't sure. Nervous, nauseous, frightened and a whole other bunch of emotions that I suppose everyone experiences on their first day at a new job. But this isn't your normal nine-to-five job, is it? I did wonder why they had offered me the post in the first place. I had found the post-mortem fascinating, but never before that had I seen a dead person, let alone spent all day with one. I still didn't really know what made me apply for the job and could only suppose that I had felt I could do it.
While I was walking with Clive over to the mortuary (which to my surprise was actually very close - you could see it from A&E if you knew where it was), I wondered what the department would look like. I had seen the post-mortem in the mortuary in the sister hospital, which was only around seven years old. Big, light and with lots of room, the whole place was shiny stainless steel and smelled of a strong disinfectant. I wondered if this mortuary would be the same, or if it would be like the mortuaries you see on old horror films, water dripping down the walls, rats scampering in the gutters and a hunchbacked man hovering in the corner holding an eleven-inch blade.
Clive led me to a pair of large red double doors under a corrugated blue steel canopy, which hides the main entrance to the mortuary so that the patients and public don't see bodies being loaded into hearses. He told me that it was on the ground floor of the pathology block, at the far end from reception. It was quite understated and not at all obviously a place where you would come across corpses, but easy enough to find. With a single key, Clive opened one of the doors.
As I entered the roomy vestibule, the smell that hit me was a mix of cleaning fluid, musty clothes and an odor I had never smelled before, which I could not even begin to describe but which for some reason reminded me of how my little brother used to smell when he came home from junior school, a sort of stale canteenish smell.
Clive led me into a small office that housed two desks. Sitting at the smaller of these was another silver-haired man, with rosy cheeks and glasses. Clive introduced Graham to me. Graham stood up and he, too, firmly shook my hand. "Hello, lovey," was his greeting, and he had a strong Gloucestershire accent which suited his appearance to a T. I vaguely recognized him and it turned out that I, too, struck a chord with him. We chatted and eventually concluded that he must know my father; Dad, being an ex-pub manager, has met a lot of people in Gloucestershire and, growing up in a pub, I, too, came across many faces.
I was offered a chair and a hot drink. Graham bent down from his chair to flick on the kettle, which was on the floor by his desk, and grabbed three cups off a bookshelf behind his head. A carton of milk was fetched from outside the double doors. Clive told me cheerfully that, until a few years ago, they would keep the milk in the bottom of the same fridge that held the bodies, but health and safety had put a stop to this. I decided then and there that I would stick with black coffee.
The office I was sitting in had seen better days. Standard hospital cream and blue paint was peeling off the walls, and the damp was rising at the bottom around the electrical socket. The furniture was dated, as if it had been dumped in the mortuary, out of the way of the main hospital which was being modernized all the time. The desks had no varnish left on them and the vinyl covering on each of the chairs was slightly torn. While Graham was in charge of making the beverages, Clive began to tell me about my predecessor who had fallen into dispute with the senior technician at the sister hospital and decided to leave. He did not go on to say what the dispute was, and I could see he wanted me to ask but I wasn't going to, not on my first day. Lots of small talk followed and I wondered if this was it for mortuary life. Did we sit all day waiting for something to happen? Did sirens ring when someone died in the hospital? Did the police barge in through a secret door with a disfigured body when somebody got hit by a bus? I found the courage to ask Clive about this and he laughed. Not in a nasty way, but in an "Oh bless" way.
Clive had been doing this job for twenty-six years. He had begun his career in the operating room as a scrub assistant, and knew the importance of infection control throughout the hospital, mortuary included. From the way he spoke, he took no prisoners when it came to the cleanliness of the mortuary. It soon became clear, too, that you name a mode of death and Clive had seen it; nothing could shock him anymore.
So, there I was, my first day, ready and eager for action, but all I had been offered was coffee because things had gone quiet, and there were to be no post-mortems that day. Clive knew how precious days like this were. Because there was no post-mortem work, only a few bodies in the body store and all the paperwork was up to date, Clive had a chance to relax and de-stress. You would not realize how busy the dead can make you, and at that moment I certainly had no idea.
We all spent the whole day chatting while Clive taught me the correct method for releasing bodies as well as other important procedures. I was introduced to a lot of people, including orderlies, undertakers and the lab manager, and given a tour of the huge hospital that was now my new workplace. I arrived home to my two dogs, Harvey and Oscar, mentally exhausted without knowing why, but excited at what tomorrow might bring. I rang my Gramp that evening to tell him about my day. I had kept him up to date on all the events and he was as excited as me about my new job. It was important for me that he knew about my life. I knew a lot about his, and he worshipped me as the only granddaughter in a male-dominated family, so it was only right he knew. And, of course, he was interested.CHAPTER 2
When I had first applied for the job as a medical technical officer in the mortuary, I did not immediately tell my parents, my brother Michael or my Gramp. Although we all have a very close relationship, some things are best not said until they are certain. But, me being me, I could not contain myself when the letter came through to say I had been shortlisted for an interview following the post-mortem demonstration. Mum and Dad knew that I was unhappy with my job in learning disabilities, but would never have encouraged me to leave one job until I'd found another, as I had responsibilities, and I was not sure what their reaction would be to this one. I had grown up in a family that has a strong sense of responsibility, and Mum and Dad had always worked hard. Of course they knew I had an interest in true crime - my bookcase when I lived at home was full of books about people who had committed murders - but I knew enough to realize that this job was not going to involve a lot of murders. I guessed that very little of it would involve any of the fascinating crime stuff that is portrayed on TV, and I was later to find out I was right.
When the request to attend for an interview arrived, I didn't say a word to any of my colleagues at my then workplace, but was bursting to tell someone, so after my early shift I returned home at about two thirty, put the two dogs on their leashes and we set off on the two-and-a-half mile walk to my parents'. Mum as usual made a huge fuss of Harvey and Oscar, as Dad shouted, "Aye up, look out, the boys are back," and as soon as they heard his voice they smothered him.
"All right, love?" Dad has asked me this question for as long as I can remember.
Mum came out with her usual, "Have you eaten? I'm just cooking our tea if you want to stay," which was followed by, "Have you got enough money?" and finished with, "Is Luke looking after you?" - Luke being my boyfriend. She then put the kettle on.
Dad went into his usual routine: "You remembered where we lived then?" which is what I get when I have spent more than three days without being in touch. So, after all the usual chat about work and life and stuff, I decided I would tell them that I had applied for the technician's job.
Mum's reaction was, surprisingly, delight. "What? Working with dead people?" She lowered her voice. "If I was your age again, I would do that."
Dad had a different response. "Comes from your mother's side of the family, that sort of interest." As soon as he said this I thought, The Addams Family, as Adams was Mum's maiden name; that, and the fact that in my last year at school my nickname was Morticia because of my long dark hair and pale complexion, meant it all seemed quite fitting. I told Mum and Dad that nothing was certain yet.
When it came to it, Mum took the day off and went with me to the interview, bringing with her Dad's good luck wishes. I think she was probably more excited than I was. She waited in the cafÃ(c) down the road from the hospital while I sat through the second interview, which involved a lot of questions about my personality and, as I said before, why I wanted the job, and how I would deal with situations that I have never been in, to most of which I replied that I would refer to a more experienced member of staff. The twenty minutes seemed to last forever. At the end I was told I would be contacted that afternoon. I rejoined Mum, who didn't say much apart from asking me how I felt and did I need a proper drink to settle myself, but when the phone call came through offering me the job and I accepted, she hugged me to the point where I nearly became unconscious. I rang Dad to tell him the news, and he replied, "Well done, love."
I then rang my brother, whose reply was typical. "What do you want to do that for?"
Luke was pleased as he knew how much I wanted the job, and suggested we celebrate that evening. Last, but by no means least, was Gramp. He was not a hundred percent sure as to what I was talking about, so we visited him later that day and explained all. And, while I'm sure he still did not fully understand, he was very proud that I was going to be working at the main hospital.CHAPTER 3
I arrived ten minutes early on my second morning at the mortuary (now that I knew vaguely where it was) and was greeted warmly by Clive who had already been in for forty minutes and had the kettle on. He liked to get in early as he always preferred to be one step ahead of the game. Graham arrived five minutes later and went straight into the body store to register the bodies that had been brought in overnight. I followed him through, as I was intrigued as to what this involved and eager to learn more of the routines of the MTO life.
The body store leads directly from the entrance vestibule. It is a large room containing a huge fridge which can house twenty-eight bodies and is fronted by seven tall doors. Opposite these are some cupboards, with a bench top, as well as a sink and trash cans. Every time the orderlies bring a body into the mortuary, they fill in a sheet that lives on the bench top; it details who the deceased is, where they have come from and which fridge they have been put into, plus a few other facts for continuity. Graham consulted this, and then went to one of the seven fridge doors; when he opened it, I saw that behind it were four metal trays, one above the other, each supporting a full body bag.
He maneuvered a hydraulic gurney on wheels in front of this, and then proceeded to raise it by pumping a lever energetically at the far end. When it was level with the third tray up, he dragged this out and I saw that it rolled along metal runners. On the outside of the white body bag was a clear plastic pocket containing the person's details on a small beige-colored cardboard label.
Graham removed the tag, opened the bag and checked it against similar tags that were tied around the dead person's wrist and big toe. He did this in a matter-of-fact manner, as if he had done it a thousand times before. Graham is a man of average height, with a pure white head of hair and the cheeks you get from spending a long time out of doors. Very friendly, he is full of stories about everything which he tells in a deep, cozy voice bathed in a broad Gloucestershire accent; I felt very comfortable in his company from the word go. He has no airs or graces and talks a lot about how things have changed.
When Graham opened the large white body bag containing Mr. Evans, I was shocked to see what lay before me. Mr. Evans was an elderly gentleman, and I expected to see a body that looked as though it was at rest. What I did see was a frail old man with head tilted back, eyes staring wide and mouth gaping open. Graham noticed straight away that I was taken aback. He explained to me about the muscles in the jaw relaxing at death and making the mouth drop open, but not about the eyes and the arched neck. At that point, Clive came into the body store and said that Mr. Evans was going for autopsy, so could we take him through to the post-mortem room and put him on the middle table?
The three tables in the PM room each had a delegated technician in order of rank. Clive was on the top table, being the senior technician, and Graham on the middle one, so I figured I would be assigned the third table, lowest in the rank. Clive told us that this had become a Coroner's case - and would therefore require an autopsy - because the death had happened a week or so after Mr. Evans had been admitted to hospital after a fall at home; all deaths that might be the result of an accident come under the jurisdiction of the Coroner and therefore require a postmortem examination. Apparently, though, such cases as these are usually straightforward. Clive informed us airily that this was probably a pulmonary embolus-a blood clot that forms usually in the leg veins and then breaks off to travel to and block the blood supply to the lungs. I looked at him blankly and he walked away chuckling, saying as he went, "You'll get there."
This was to be the only PM for the day, so Clive asked me if I would be satisfied just to go and watch Graham take the organs out of the body - eviscerate it - and then help him clean up afterwards. More than happy, I was shown into a small changing room where I dressed in blue scrubs that were three sizes too big and picked from a large selection of white clogs the pair that was closest to my size. I entered the PM room from the opposite, "dirty," door in the changing room. Graham was already there and he showed me a small alcove off the main room which housed disposable hats, masks, gloves and goggles.
Not having a clue what glove size I am, I chose the smallest and then struggled with the disposable hat-I probably ended up looking like the Pope until Graham pointed me in the direction of the mirror. I found myself looking at someone out of perhaps a science fiction film or a medical soap opera; I felt really weird wearing all this protective gear and, once again, was worrying that I was out of my depth.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Down Among the Dead Men"
Copyright © 2010 Michelle Williams and Keith McCarthy.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
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