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morganandstefanyMorgan and Shuffy (Stefany’s nick name), why did you write a book about dead people?

Would you prefer that we write a book about live people? No, better the dead…

 

Are the essays in this book eulogies?

Yes…and no. We did try to take each of these dead persons seriously and therefore to write with some sympathy. In general, even with the living, we try to take people seriously and on their own terms. But the job of writing about recently deceased persons of note is not to say something nice simply for the sake of saying something nice. It is about digging and scratching at the lives in order to see what comes to the surface. Sometimes, this creates surprises.

I’m

connected to a dead man

on LinkedIn. In real life

I met him only once.

Talked to him on the phone thrice.

He was nice. He

was also old. 80, I think.

Drank coffee and

wore gray trousers. He smiled large

with nearly perfect teeth framed

in plastic pink.

If I disconnect from him, cut him free,

somewhere in the Great Beyond

(where he currently resides)

will he feel the sever of my

digital disloyalty?

Will he blur and spark

as he begins

to

f  a   d    e

an aged Cheshire

indentured to our memory

as in Kevin Brockmeier’s

The Brief History of the Dead?

And what if he has something to say

from the Great Beyond? “Sure,” you say,

“If he has something profound to say

from the grave, why would he choose LinkedIn to do it?”

Well, why wouldn’t he?

*snap*

Will he haunt my bedside, asking,

“Why

did you give up on me?

What –

What did our connection cost you?”

Will I stutter and clear my throat, mumbling

something about how my LinkedIn profile

is only for real people,

and will he stare

and tap his foot

and point his ghostly cursor to my outstanding invitation to

Kevin Bacon

who is clearly not the real

Kevin Bacon,

Independent Entertainment Professional,

but an equally faceless smirk-bearing entity

of superstar SizzleLean

allowing me

someday

to jump the queue

from 6 degrees to a mere

1?

I’m connected to dead man and

I do not know what

to do with

him.

 

Never in a million years did I think I would end up in a job like this. Although I had worked in the National Health Service for over a decade, it had been as a health care assistant for people with learning disabilities, a very different life. For the last few months I had been feeling bored and had come to realize that I was never going to make a career out of it. The NHS is a good organization to work for, though; I did not want to leave the pension scheme that I had been paying into for so long and that was mounting up nicely by the year. While I was scanning the intranet pages at work one day, a job caught my eye. It was intriguing and I had to reread it again and again. The vacancy was for a trainee MTO – Medical Technical Officer – at a local Gloucestershire hospital, and I thought that the title alone sounded interesting. It involved working in the hospital mortuary (also known as a morgue). It did not go into too much detail but the word “cadaver” was used a lot. Despite having no experience of working with dead people and no real thought about how I would cope, I decided that I had nothing to lose and would give it a go and apply. I like things that are different, not run of the mill, and this job certainly seemed to fit that bill.

A few weeks passed and I pressed on with my job, putting the MTO (incidentally, MTOs are now called Anatomical Pathology Technicians, or APTs) post to the back of my mind, all the while thinking I’d have no chance because I had no experience whatsoever. I was educated above the standard required, but I’ve always thought that knowledge is nothing over experience. To my surprise, though, I eventually received an invitation to attend one of the mortuaries in Gloucestershire for an informal interview. I figured this would be for a look around while it was quiet to see how I felt in a mortuary environment, but how wrong I was.

On arriving at the pathology department at the hospital, I was asked to take a seat in the reception waiting area as several candidates were attending and we would all be shown around together: this job was obviously more popular than I had thought. On entering the waiting area, I saw a woman dressed from head to toe in black gothic clothing with very long curly straw-like red hair, who was one of the other applicants. She greeted me cautiously; I smiled faintly at her and decided to sit on the other side of the room. She asked me if I was here for the MTO post and I replied, “Yes,” wondering what her next question would be. And then she asked me if I had had any breakfast. I thought this was a very bizarre question to ask someone you did not know, but what the invitation letter had failed to tell me was that I was about to witness a real post-mortem on a dead person, there and then. As the other candidates arrived, it turned out that around half of us had not been told what we were in for. Two people decided to walk out on the spot, and I have to admit I thought twice, but curiosity got the better of me.

Within ten minutes we were in the mortuary and being welcomed, given over-gowns, over-shoes, disposable hats and masks and asked if anyone knew, or was related to, a Mr. Bentley of Pear Tree Close, Gloucestershire. Strange question, I thought, but it turned out that the post-mortem we were about to witness was on Mr. Bentley and it would be neither appropriate nor pleasant to see someone you know being cut from clavicle to pubis for your first experience of dissection. We were handed over to the senior technician, Clive Wilson. All I could see were his eyes under his protective clothing, but they sparkled and looked welcoming. He talked us through the whole postmortem, stopping often to ask how everyone was doing and advising us, “There are no heroes in the mortuary. If anyone feels they cannot cope, then they must leave.” Anyway, to my surprise I found it all absolutely fascinating and spoke to Clive as if we were old friends, and although Clive had clearly been doing it for years, I thought it didn’t actually look that difficult a job.

Meanwhile, I was also aware of what was going on around us. Apart from the other candidates for the job, some of whom had obviously just wanted to see a post-mortem and nothing else, the atmosphere in the post-mortem room was relaxed: two juniors and one senior MTO were busy removing the organs from other bodies (a process which I later learned was called “eviscerating”) and chatting away with the pathologist about daily topics, while weighing body organs and cleaning floors and surfaces around the room, keeping it as clean as possible. I decided then and there that this was definitely the career for me; I wanted to do what they were doing.

A few days later, to my surprise, I was called back for the formal interview and waffled my way through it. I was quite honest when explaining why I wanted the job, as I had no other reason. I replied that I really did not know, but that it just felt right and that the urge to be part of the mortuary team and be able to do such an exclusive, fascinating job was very strong. It paid off, and that afternoon the phone call came through offering me the post; I didn’t really believe it; not until written confirmation arrived a day later.

What I didn’t realize then, was that I was about to start one of the most amazing jobs you can do.


What made you want to work in a mortuary?

The job posting was advertised as working with cadavers. I knew what the word meant and thought it would be interesting. I was invited to attend a post-mortem and decided that this was the job for me. I felt comfortable in the environment and was interested in how the human body works.

 

What is the atmosphere like?

We try to keep the atmosphere upbeat in the mortuary. We talk about everyday issues and behave, I think, in the same way that most people who work in a small environment behave. We have established good working relationships with each other, our pathologists, undertakers, and bereavement services. Obviously, there are times that the atmosphere is not a nice one; this tends to happen if we get a tragic death, such as a child, or a horrific unexpected death such as a multiple road traffic accident.

 

How do you deal with those “bad” days?

Having the ability to be around these situations on a monthly basis does not make us less affected by these horrific events. Yes, we have an ability to “cope”, but we still feel, and dealing with the families of these events can make it more personal for us. As a team, it is important that we speak to each other and look after each other. There may be a situation that is too similar to an event in a technician’s personal life, so these cases would be dealt with a technician that is not as affected by the situation. It’s about teamwork.

 

How do you manage to have a “normal” life?

I am lucky that I have the support of very close family and friends. There are cases that I have been part of over the years that will always stick in my memory because of the tragedy of the case and the grief for the families involved. By seeing death every working day, it makes me realise how lucky I am to have what I have, and the time spent with my family, friends, and pets is important to me. I live a normal life outside of work, and do things most people do. I am lucky that I am able to separate work from home.

 

Why did you decide to write the book?

When I tell people what I do for a living, more often than not, a host of questions arrive. I was amazed at the interest of my job, and how people would want to know the workings of a mortuary but would not be able to do the job. People always say that I don’t look like someone who would work in a mortuary, and I wanted to get across the fact that I have a life outside of my job and I like to look attractive and have nice things, while letting people know what technicians deal with on a daily basis.

 

 


“Collarbone” is not a word one expects a two-year-old to whisper in one’s ear in an underground, candlelit cavern. I blame myself. For not asking questions about what was down there. For exposing her to death at such an early age. For taking her down into the catacombs in the first place.

We are in Stefansdom in Vienna, the massive Romanesque and Gothic cathedral at the city’s drizzle-damp center.

Through the yawning arch, the carved columns support a soaring nave leading down to a massive baroque high altar, beside which hangs the Christ child with a three stemmed rose. The scene is framed and set aglow by candles burning to long dead saints, lit by the genuflecting living in the cold, damp air of sacred space.

Oh, but underneath.

Our tour guide rushes in exactly on time sporting a suit too small for him in the shoulders and the careless sandy blond hair of an academic. He has a strong Viennese accent – an outrageous accent hovering somewhere between an Inspector Poirot and a Jar-Jar Binks. He takes our money and leads our group of about 20 down into the bowels of the cathedral.

This is the point where some sort of mothering instinct should have kicked in – the kind where my brain sends the message, “Catacombs are where dead people reside. Huhn. Perhaps this is not child-appropriate.”

But, the truth is I was fascinated. I love dead people. I mean, not in the way that I would like to find one of their kind cuddled under my sheets, but I will admit to a moderate fascination with the other side. Not enough to turn me into a kohl-lined, Rob Zombie worshipping member of tribe ‘Emo’, but, you know, enough to take an occasional peek into the cadaver lab at university and to enjoy the movie “Blade.”

It starts light. We see tombs. Sarcophagi. It is a burial place for royalty and church leaders — the usual stuff one sees under such places. And then, he takes us into the chamber.

The word “collarbone” cuts through the chill of the room and I turn to see what my innocent little cherub is looking at. Behind bars, I see them: the remains of two souls long since passed. They are draped in cloth, which I can only guess must have qualified as garments at some point, but which now do little to hide their skeletal remains.

We move on from there.  Through the earthen tunnels of the lantern lit catacombs, we peek into the various rooms.

Everywhere, there are bones.

We are told that the remains of more than 11,000 people surround us – mostly bubonic plague victims from the 1700s. When the nearby graveyards were filled, the bodies were carted to the cathedral, where they were tossed akimbo into a mass grave deep underground — under the incense and the candles and the Christ child holding the three stemmed rose.

At some point, some of the monks who lived and worked at the church took it upon themselves to give the bodies a more respectable resting place. By then, the flesh was gone and the joints long since severed, so the monks set to work organizing the bones in a most logical way: femurs with femurs, clavicles with clavicles, skulls with skulls.

From a practical standpoint, this only makes sense. Certainly I wouldn’t want to be held responsible for the incorrect reconfiguration of nearly 11,000 pissed off souls.

Through the frigid catacombs we walk, peering into room after room stacked neatly with bones. We hug our own thinly veiled bones for warmth as we approach the pit where the monks had left off their task. Imagine a silo filled with bones. It has been capped off and has peepholes at the top for easy viewing. One by one, we approach it. Grimly, we stare into the dry soup.

I am torn between protecting my daughter from these sights and exposing her to the truth early on.  Handing her off to my husband — and thus my personal responsibility for her well-being — I fall behind the group. I want a picture, but pictures are not allowed.

And still…I want a picture.

I wait for the guide to disappear down the hall. I can see my breath in the lantern light. I am alone. Alone with dem dry bones. I point my camera into a small room, covered with iron bars. It’s dark in the room, and I have no idea what I’m even photographing.

A chill. A rush. Immediately, I am regretting my photo and am racing toward my husband and daughter at the back of the group.

Back out in open air, we huddle by a wall to review the picture I had stolen from underneath on my digital camera. The clatter of horse hooves echoes off the stone street as I find it. There, in the gray, is a dimly lit clutter of bones. These were not among the organized. The respected. These bones were not at peace.

A shudder took me over just as I threw my head back and laughed.

At the time, I could not have told you why I did this. There was something so deliciously terrifying about it all. In retrospect, I think this must be ingrained somewhere deep within – that perhaps these bones are at the center of the writer’s psyche. When we write, sometimes we return the bones to flesh. Sometimes we do the reverse, stripping as we go. Ultimately, we refuse to acknowledge they can be separated at all: the bones from the flesh; the cathedral and the catacombs; the sacred and the profane.

As writers, we peek into the pits, we excavate, we catalogue, we get to the core of our humanity…and if we do it right, we scare ourselves to death.

And we love every minute of it.

As for my daughter, well…if she doesn’t become a writer, there’s always therapy.