London Month of the Dead Continues

At the weekend I had the absolute pleasure of spending most of my time within West Brompton cemetery amongst the graves and shielding from the rain on Sunday in the chapel. I’d inadvertently chosen two events to attend that interested me for different reasons but ended up being very close to my heart for the same reason. In some ways I’m glad I don’t look too much into events before I attend so I can have nice surprises like this. In other ways I felt very naive for not realising!

What a difference a day makes! Bright sunshine to dreary rain. Definitely made for a different atmosphere in the cemetery each day.

In the sunshine of Saturday, Laura D and I attended a double session of talks on the topic of the Crossbones Graveyard in Southwark. Long time readers might remember I wrote about this graveyard previously as it used to be a favourite lunchtime spot when I was working at Guy’s Hospital. In the mizzle of Sunday we went to a talk discussing the mass graves of Spitalfields, something I thought would be historical and interesting. However, it proved that both talks had a large, if not complete, basis in archaeology, and those that know me well will know I have an archaeological background.

Lives of London Past – Red Cross Way (Crossbones)

I won’t go into too much detail as always, because I want to encourage you to go to talks and I don’t want to ruin any future ones for anybody. That and it doesn’t seem fair to the speakers to tell you all about their work. However, the Crossbones talk was a brilliant contrast to Spitalfields and I will explain why.

On one side you have a relatively unknown graveyard that was saved from being destroyed entirely due to the work of the community and those who fought to save it. This largely came through the work of the second speaker of the day, John Constable, who wrote a book titled Southwark Mysteries and has a lot of his work based around the figure of the ‘Goose’ who would have worked and lived in the area of the time as a sex worker. Jelena Bekvalac spoke intitially on the collection of 148 individuals who were excavated from this site and are now looked after by her at the Museum of London in Barbican. Her detailed analysis of the demographic of the individuals and some of the insights their bones gave to their lives were really fascinating. It’s hugely important to note that this was only a partial excavation and there were a lot more than 148 people buried there, although many have probably been destroyed or removed by buildings on the site previously.

Some interesting decor by the sponsor Hendricks gin

On the other side, the Spitalfields excavation that Don Walker from Museum of London Archaeology presented was more complete. Thousands of skeletons were removed and the site now has the market on top, although you can visit today and still see remnants like the priory. The research project into this excavation was lucky enough to be funded well, so they were even able to carbon date a lot of the findings. This allows much more precise dating than normal, and meant that certain assumptions about the period of burial were not made and therefore something much more exciting happened in the research into why there were so many mass graves at that time.

It was odd but lovely hearing about archaeology again. About stratigraphy, matrices, site codes, and even a little mention of hypoplastic defects (I might have written a whole 15,000 word dissertation about those delightful little things! I also have volunteered for both the Museum of London, although at their Docklands Museum, and also for MOLA but at their archive in Eagle Wharf Road. It was great in addition to bump into two of the hosts of the Dead Kids Club podcast too and say hello to them! They’re three PhD students from UCL where I studied who discuss different archaeological stuff together in a great podcast. You can listen to it where you get your podcasts, for example here.

So the London Month of the Dead is about halfway through now and I’ve loved the events so far. I think most of the events are sold out but it’s worth checking out what’s available and get yourself to a talk if you can! We have a couple left and I will let you know about them when we’ve attended.

MG x

Where Is My Mind?

As I tweeted on the day, I really struggled to say anything in regards to Mental Health Day when so many others were posting poignant and significant things. I struggled not only because I didn’t know what to say but I also didn’t know how to say it. I almost had too much to say while also having nothing to say all at the same time.

The more I thought about this, the more I wanted to explain myself. I think I thought it such a hard topic to discuss, and then again I discuss the similarly hard topic of death all the time, so how can I find it so hard? Maybe because I’m not used to talking about it so regularly, but I’m not against the idea. I think also, death is something that happens to everyone and is universal whereas mental health can be an individual thing and you could not be affected by it negatively at all.

Like with death, I do believe as with so many others, that mental health issues should be discussed more. I think the problems with mental health are two fold in that we rarely see evidence of people having problems and the experiences of those with problems are so wide and varied it can range from mild to incredibly severe scenarios. In effect, this makes it invisible until it becomes visible, often in the most awful and damaging of ways.

My own experiences with mental health started quite young, I’d say mid-teens and I still have the faint symptoms now although I accept I could always end up back there or worse than my truly awful days. I mostly suffered with depression, with bouts of anxiety thrown in, which worsened when I moved out from my parents’ house and bought my own flat. I did take medication, the dosage increased until I was on the highest the doctor said I could have. Medication for me was an appropriate thing for three years but I knew when the time was right to come off. By time being right, I don’t mean I was better exactly but I was done with the changes the medication made to me and wanted to try to cope without it. This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t take it again if I was advised to, or be against someone taking it for the rest of their life if necessary.

Working where I do now, I see the horrible things that bad mental health can do to people. I see suicides far more regularly than I thought I would, and I see families completely unaware there was even a chance their relative felt that way in some cases. I couldn’t possibly explain why it happens, I honestly believe that the evil nature of this range of illnesses can make you believe the worst things and that can mean someone thinking that they would be better off dead. Like with any other illness, I believe in there being hope for these people, but the stigma around discussing mental health problems needs to be destroyed before more people come forward. Especially men.

When I first moved out, I did something I thought was crazier than the thoughts in my head and I started running. I say running, I mean poorly jogging around the park on my doorstep in the dawn light hoping not to bump into anyone else. I did the Couch to 5k programme, then moved on and did a 10k with a friend who asked me to do that as a helping hand at a tough time, followed by many other runs. Running became a time to be able to think about things logically, it was working better than therapy ever could, allowing me to order and catalogue my thoughts. My dream was to run the London Marathon because that is what kick started my crazy-self stepping out the door in the dim early hours in the hope of one day feeling like a super hero.

Proudly completed the Brighton Half Marathon in 2014 and the Royal Parks Half Marathon in 2015. I did the Shine Walking Marathon in 2016 but never have I attempted to run one before.

For six years I’ve applied for a ballot place in the London Marathon knowing I could never raise the thousands of pounds the charity places ask you to. Every year you can donate your entry fee if you are unsuccessful and in the post you receive a consolation ‘Sorry!’ magazine and a rather nice running jacket or jumper. This year I’d decided to not apply again next year, to appreciate a sixth jumper and accept defeat. That was until Monday when I saw the familiar red plastic wrapping of a marathon magazine, minus the puffiness of a jumper. I won’t say exactly what I said but it was the same swear word repeatedly for about ten minutes while laughing like a maniac. I’m not certain I can do this, but I’m going to give it a good go.

Uh oh…

I’ve spent the last four days trying to decide who to raise money for because although I can’t raise £2,000, I can try and raise a bit of cash for someone. Originally I was looking at the bereavement or hospice charities but something didn’t feel right, even though that would totally be on brand! Then I saw a little thing pop up from Mind. What with all the amazing posts this week, I also came home yesterday to have a discussion about mental health with my other half unrelated to any of this. Then we popped out and Where Is My Mind? by the Pixies came on the stereo in the car. That settled it really, and I applied to run for them when I got back. Please bear in mind I have to have a health check before I know I can definitely run but I’m fairly certain I’ll be okay!

Check out the work they do because it’s wonderful!

In all of this, I think I just want to reiterate that I think we have a long way to go when it comes to improving mental health but the more and more I see people talking about it on social media or in normal conversation I know we are moving in the right direction. I will put all the effort I can into helping this change.

MG x

Happy 1st Anniversary To Me!

One whole year employed as a Mortuary Assistant/Trainee APT has gone by. What an incredible thing to be able to say. One year on and I’ve achieved some amazing things I really find hard to believe. Our lovely admin assistant bought me a box of French Fancies to celebrate, and I might have just mentioned it a few times more than was appropriate through the day.

Always a yellow one. Yellow is the best.

Brain count is up to 55, it’s slowed right down again but I’m still counting. I can’t wait to get to my next milestone of 75, although I think I will need to add another post it note at some point or devise a better counting system.

We might have got a new label machine in the office and I definitely didn’t play around with it for a while.

The week before last we said goodbye to one of our experienced members of staff who left to go and work at another mortuary. I was sad to see her go, and I wish her all the best in her future at her new job. She taught me a lot in the post mortem room and I’m really grateful for all her help. My other colleague who has been on maternity leave for what feels like forever has confirmed she is coming back soon so I’m really looking forward to having her back in the team!

I’ve been training people and on Monday I have to stand in front of a room full of nurses and talk to them about what we do. I’m actually quite nervous but also very excited in a weird way. I find giving training to others is really good at showing yourself how much you know.

This week I went and got my flu jab at work! I think it’s really important to protect yourself against the flu if you can, and by doing so you also protect those around you. I hope. Last year I got the jab but my other half didn’t, I had a bit of a cold at one point which was easily gotten over whereas a few days later he was completely bed ridden with flu. I don’t know if I gave it to him, but if he’d had the flu jab he probably wouldn’t have been so sick! Some might wonder why a mortuary worker needs to worry about protecting patients. I still walk through the hospital, see family members and my colleagues so it’s not that I never see another living person!

Dr Flu! This year’s flu jab campaign theme at the trust.

Outside of work, Rocks (my cat) has been out of the vets for over a week now, the longest he’s been home since August. Really great to have him home. I missed him so badly and honestly didn’t think he would be coming home at one point.

October is a busy month, what with the London Month of the Dead happening and a few other events. I’ll be sure to let you know when I’ve attended and what happened. The events at the Barts Pathology Museum kick off again shortly and can be found here. I’m also off on a couple of trips next month and planning them has been a lot of fun.

The Upminster Death Cafe is taking a break for October but will be back on the 6th November and then again on the 4th December. We hoped doing an early one both of these months might attract some different people and give us a chance to have a break over the busy Christmas period! I’m also in the works of planning a weekend event for those that can’t get to the Tuesday evening so if you would like to be included let me know.

MG x

London Month of the Dead Begins

Oh wow did it start well! The evening of Tuesday 2nd October, I attended the first event of the month with some friends. Laura D and I arrived at Highgate cemetery at just after dusk, having taken a bus up (most) of the big hill, and then wandered back down Swain’s Lane towards the chapel with achey calf muscles. Highgate chapel has a definite atmosphere which you want to attend at night, a welcoming glow in the dark and a drifting aroma of citrus from the warm gin cocktails supplied (true to the original Victorian recipe we were told!) cannot be anything but completely delightful.

Couldn’t tire of staring at that ceiling if I tried!

Dr. John Troyer began his presentation once the room was settled and suitably plied with warm gin. John is a lecturer at Bath university and the Director of the Centre for Death and Society. His talk was on the principle that humans have tried to extend their life spans, the reasons why, the consequences of these attempts and the results as they stand now. I won’t go into great detail about the event’s contents as such, mainly because I don’t want to ruin any future talks he may give on this topic if you are lucky enough to attend. I do, however what to discuss the thoughts I came away with. Largely, I was fascinated by his declaration that there is no ‘taboo’ around death existing today as so many (including myself) claim. I was also interested by the fact that at the start and also once presented with all of the information regarding that we could feasibly have our lifespans extended beyond what we consider normal today, when the room was asked if we would want to be immortal there was very few people who actually put their hands up. Mine did not go up at either the start or the end.

Firstly let’s look at the taboo, or the lack thereof. John insisted that the taboo was not there because people are actually starting to talk about death. That the fascination and opposite reaction of avoidance of death comes and goes like fashion almost, so the current death positive movement was nothing new nor was it a revolutionary concept. I guess that having never thought of it on this larger scale, I never really considered that it could be part of a much wider change in viewpoint rather than a new concept as such. However, I’m not convinced this reduces the necessity to highlight death as a taboo in current society. Too many people I encounter refuse to think about death, they refuse to talk about it and they are in complete denial that it is something that should be discussed at some point before it is absolutely urgent. To me that is a taboo, because society has, for a long time, made them feel that talking about death is unacceptable. Maybe you could term it in a different way. Maybe this is dependant on location, on social class, on background and on family experiences or connections. Accepting that, I still see that there is an overriding distaste in society to my career and my interests above those who are intrigued or open to the topic. I think I will still continue to describe this as a taboo, but maybe broaden my reasoning behind that term until I see a greater shift in how people think around me.

Would you choose to be immortal, given the caveat that you could still choose to also end your life at any point? Would you have considered in your choice the concept that the ageing process would also need to be halted somehow at a point where life was feasible? It’s all very thought provoking, however personally very little, if anything, could persuade me that immortality was a good thing. Not because I am religious, I am staunchly an atheist, but because I currently do not see a need for me to be around for an extended period above my allotted time however long that may be. I’m acutely aware that my mindset on this could and probably would change if I was faced with knowing when I would die or if it was soon. I’m not certain if working with death has made me very accepting that it will happen. I think it has certainly helped with my anxiety round the fact I don’t know when but I can’t do anything about it. Although, I am certain that this wouldn’t be the same reason for the majority of people in that room not raising their hand in response and it would be interesting to know their thoughts. It’s an odd thing I would like to explore further, but I do know that I really do feel more comfortable knowing that I will die one day rather than knowing that I would never die.

It was a fantastic way to kick start the London Month of the Dead and I cannot wait for the further events I am attending. Financial and time constraints meant I could only attend a handful but I will update you as I go along. Other than this I have a few other events and trips booked for the coming winter months which I am very excited about so keep a look out for those! If you have anything to say on the points raised above please comment or email me too.

MG x

AAPT Annual Conference London 2018

It’s a most excellent start to any morning when you make a cup of tea only to realise that the milk’s gone off. However I wouldn’t let that ruin or darken my day for I was off early to the AAPT 14th annual conference and this year I had some pretty awesome reasons to be excited.

Cup of tea attempt #2

I arrived at the Holiday Inn Regent’s Park to a crowd of people outside. Some people I recognised, fewer I actually knew and a lot more I had no idea who they were. I’ve been lucky to attend a few AAPT events before including this conference last year, it almost feels like I have a tick-list of people to check off each time to speak to, and this year I got a whole load of new ticks. One thing I will say, the people of the AAPT are always so very friendly and just, well, normal people. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more like I fit with a job I’ve had, good news really when I’m pretty certain I’ve got my dream career.

Got a little beefeater bear to go with my Cardiff dragon

When I got there I saw an open door towards the registration desks so I rushed in to get my lanyard and bag of goodies. A little pre-emptive as I was immediately told they weren’t open yet and to go stand outside! Oops! Outside I stood nervously catching people’s eyes and trying to figure out who was an APT and who was a bog standard hotel patron. The doors opened not long after and I got registered, then walked through to the conference room to grab a seat and dump my coat. Then it was time to grab a cup of tea and settle on in for the morning session.

Trusty notebook bought by Laura D and the conference programme

There was an array of talks in the morning and the afternoon of a very high calibre. I particularly enjoyed a presentation by a member of the air ambulance crew who described East London as being ‘well, yes, a bit stabby’ while discussing the kind of call outs he went to. I’ve seen the kinds of procedures they use on people who have arrived at the mortuary but I’ve never been sure exactly how they are carried out or why, now I know! In the afternoon session there was also a presentation by a Sergeant from the Metropolitan Marine Police who look after the river along with other areas, for example I never knew they did high areas like rooftops too! Her presentation was a brilliant and informative one, largely explaining what happens to people if they end up in the river and how they are found. Her presentation ended on discussing the SS Princess Alice disaster where a passenger paddle steamer was struck and sank in the Thames in 1865. A larger part of my notes from this section includes a direct quote of a description of the water at Woolwich where it sank being ‘fast flowing poo soup’.

Thought you might enjoy my little sketch titled ‘how people float’ drawn from an impression the speaker did on stage, fish was not in demonstration.

It was a fabulous day and I got to meet some wonderful people. Right towards the end I found out that I was going to receive a certificate for my CPD (continual professional development) achievement over the last year with others, which I then spent the last hour worrying about going up the front. Typical of me! The AGM (annual general meeting) after the main conference also had the very exciting announcement that I have been appointed the Student Representative on the Council for the AAPT. This mean some hard work but I’m so looking forward to working with the Council going forward. I guess this is also a good time to announce that, all things going to plan, I will be starting my full training course in February 2019. It’s going to be a very exciting time coming up!

CPD certificate and my mugshot on the council listing!

Sadly I didn’t get to attend the evening event, I had to get home early but I was also a little grateful for other commitments. When your last talk of the day is about boat disasters and pulling bodies out of the Thames, a not very confident swimmer like me would be a little anxious about a party on a riverboat!!

I’d like to take an opportunity to thank the hard working people of the AAPT who put together and awesome conference again this year. I loved every minute and I am very much looking forward to the next one in Edinburgh in 2019!

MG x

Kidneys Are A Bit Awesome. Fact.

I can only apologise for my lack of posts recently, it feels like ages since I’ve posted anything particularly informative other than my regular weekly updates! I have been distracted by my life outside work of vets visits for my poor cat Rockstar who had me worried senseless alongside some other life stuff. I’d love to say I’m on my way back to some kind of normality at some point but who knows!

Obligatory Rockstar photograph, with his little cute bandage!

For now, I’ve got some time so let’s look at one of the body’s most interesting organs (my own point of view) the kidney! I’ve had some of my own kidney issues in life, namely multiple kidney infections including one time in Greece on an Archaeology trip where I ended up urinating in a plastic cup in a doctor’s house and walking past his family watching tv holding it. That time I had pain so bad I vomited and I think possibly hallucinated. Some say kidney pain can be as bad as childbirth, I can’t comment having only experienced one but it was a pretty rough time.

Flashback to archaeologist Gem who always seemed to have sunburn and a kidney infection of some variety

The little kidney is a thing of wonder. You need only one functioning one to live but it has to work. Without that you need dialysis to keep you alive or a full on transplant. On a basic level your kidneys filter your blood and remove out waste alongside fluid which produces urine. The urine travels to your bladder and its removed when you urinate. There’s a highly complex structure of nephrons (the tiny parts that do all the hard work) and a filtration system that works together to do this. They are bean shaped (hence kidney bean!) and look kind of smooth and purple when healthy. Inside they are often a yellow or white. The pathologist removes them from the fat they reside in during a post mortem and has to separate them from a capsule that surround them, often by sliding a finger around them. They sit nearby the adrenal glands that produce necessary hormones, including that lovely stuff called adrenaline.

My drawing of a sectioned kidney in a jar for display

Sometimes the kidneys have cysts on them that can be quite large and burst when removed. These are known as cortical cysts and are generally harmless unless affecting the function of the kidney. I’ve seen quite a few, and a couple go pop. I’ve also seen kidney scarring where the surface is pitted or mottled rather than smooth. Again, scarring can be harmless and is caused by numerous trauma or conditions in the kidney, unless the scarring affects the function. I once asked the pathologist if all my infections would have scarred mine but truth is I wouldn’t know without taking a look, and I’m not that desperate to know.

This week I was lucky to see an example of a horseshoe kidney, where the two kidneys are not separated as normal and are linked at the bottom in a U shape. This can be completely harmless in people and you may have this without even knowing. It can cause some symptoms but there is no known solution. According to Wikipedia it’s a 1 in 600 chance of having this and is more common in men than women. There’s more information and images on Wikipedia.

In some cases, people are born with only one kidney, or only one functional kidney and one kidney that is not functional. In this situation you may, once again, never know you have this. It is possible to never have any problems! I myself know that I don’t have this because I had several scans in my early twenties to find out. Unfortunately I have abnormally short ureters from my kidneys to my bladder that allow infection to travel upwards. Hooray for anatomical abnormality, a slightly sarcastic but there’s no denying they are extremely interesting. The best I can do is ensure I take care of bladder infections or UTIs (urinary tract infections) effectively and drink lots of water. I was also advised to not have baths and avoid citrus or caffeine among other things.

Lastly I’d like to mention kidney transplants. I think the coolest things about transplants are twofold. Firstly, you can donate a kidney while alive and well, and live a normal life after. It’s one of the few things you can give as a living donor. As said above, you only need one functioning kidney to survive. Secondly, they do not remove the non or poorly functioning kidneys of the recipient and they can end up with three or even four kidneys in total. I think someone once even ended up with five (something I think I saw on QI episode once upon a time!). There’s more information on kidney donation on the NHS website.

Aren’t kidneys great? I had a love/hate relationship with mine for a long time but I can only be grateful they do work well most of the time. Give yourself a little pat on the back (pretty much just below your ribs) and thank your kidneys for the hard work they do!

Tomorrow I am off to the AAPT annual conference in London, and I’m very excited! This is how it all began a year ago when I started my career, and I can’t believe how much I’ve progressed in a year. I will write an update shortly after so keep an eye out.

MG x

Death Cafe, The London Podcast Festival & a Very Important Question

The fourth Upminster Death Café, which is our fifth that we have hosted and was somehow, utterly unintentionally, an all-female attended event, which I think definitely influenced the mood of the evening. By this I mean that I feel it allowed the people there to open up a bit more about some of their personal experiences and be totally honest about some things they might not have wanted to in front of any male attendees. Of course I could be totally incorrect about this and we could well have had exactly the same experience with men in the room! I also would like to just say that it does not mean that men are unwelcome from now on and it was just a funny occurrence, everyone is welcome of course.

Not sponsored by Coca-Cola, unless they would like to…

I was really pleased that we hosted 15 people this time around (in that I include myself, Rachel and the lovely ladies of the Sweet Rose Cakery because we all get involved) and to have people bring with them some topics they wanted to discuss. We had a great range of conversation and went off on a few tangents as always, but the conversation did come back to death every time. We covered old age, how our parents or relatives reacted to bereavements, how to talk to people who are grieving, whether or not you have to have a funeral, and ‘death denial’ among many other things.

The atmosphere of the night was overall a very happy one and there was a lot of laughter with some sadder moments in between. For anyone curious, this is the general tone of the Death Café events that I have noticed, it’s very positive and often funny but people are safe to express other emotions and will be listened to. I think that by the fact people have opened up in this environment shows that people feel comfortable enough to do so. I will always totally understand if people are worried about what these events contain, but the only way I can help is by recommending you attend one if you are interested and find out.

The rest of the week has been quite eventful for me! At the weekend I attended the London Podcast festival and saw live my two favourite podcasts of them all- Griefcast by Cariad Lloyd and Wooden Overcoats written by David K. Barnes. I’ve banged on about them a lot on here before but if you’re interested give them a google or iTunes search.

Wooden Overcoats- a comedy about rival funeral directors on a fictional Channel Island

Griefcast- Cariad Lloyd interviews comedians about when they have experienced grief

This week I’ve been back and forth to our other hospital covering the afternoons, as well as there all day today to give some training sessions to staff members. As mentioned before, we give training to the nurses and other staff who do end of life care to ensure they are giving the patient the best start in death for when they come to the mortuary. As well as this we also train the portering staff on their work in the mortuary. We think it is important too that they get to know us friendly members of staff who they won’t be afraid to contact if they ever have a query or are unsure about something. This was my first time doing this training on my own and I think I did okay, although I introduced myself to be told ‘We know, we saw you on the Intranet!’. Apparently people know me, might explain some of the smiles and looks I get around the hospital, I thought I just looked weird!

A little while ago I saw on Twitter a company called Death Deck who were producing a new card game that caught my eye. Death Deck is a game to encourage people to have the difficult conversations about death with their loved ones, the cards having some questions which prompt these discussions. I was so excited I ordered as soon as it came out and it finally arrived yesterday, after some hefty customs charges. I’ve been speaking to them about it being available on the UK Amazon soon, but it’s available in the US now. Planning on busting it out at an event soon, really looking forward to playing it!

The Death Deck game

I’ll leave you today with Funny Things I’ve Heard on the Staff Bus- Part 1, my new mini feature. Well, let’s see if I hear anything else at any point for a Part 2! Three, I think junior doctors but I could be wrong, were sat behind me on the bus and were discussing healthy eating. One of them said that she had tried being vegetarian but would still eat fish, justifying this by saying ‘Well would you rather punch a fish or punch a cow?’. This is now a question I think I will be asking everyone I meet just to hear what they think. So, what would you rather punch, a salmon or an Aberdeen Angus?

MG x

If You Go Down To The Crem Today…

You might well be in for a big surprise. Who knows! Way back in March, I had seen that our local Crematorium, either known as Corbet’s Tey or the South Essex Crematorium, runs tours for interested local people. I emailed on was offered one in September but made sure I could go, so I found myself on a rainy Wednesday afternoon at the Crematorium. The tour covered the building only, which is comprised of the chapel areas and the actual cremation area. Please note, I asked at the start if I was allowed to take photos fully expecting to be told that the area where the cremations taking part would be off limits. I respected this so there are no photos of what we saw there, but tours like this run throughout the year and you are able to go and see them for yourself if you are interested.

The East Chapel

We started off outside the smaller East Chapel. The building itself has two chapels, the larger South chapel and the East. First we were told a bit about the building itself. The crematorium opened in 1957, we were told this was the year when cremations first overtook burials as the most common method of ‘disposal’. The two chapels are equipped with a media system which allows music to be played, as well as recording and live linking of the ceremony online. The larger South chapel has the ability to show tributes on screens at the front also. It is all very modern and the person conducting the ceremony can control this alongside the curtain around the coffin, or someone in an office outside the chapel is able to do it for them.

Small office where the controls are

I am quite familiar with these chapels as I have been to several funerals at this site. I remember seeing the coffin led in, and placed upon the stand (which has a name I can’t remember!) at the back. Behind the stand are two doors which I always believed didn’t actually open. I’m unsure why but I always thought the crematory workers would come into the room and get it after everyone had left. More on that later. While we were in the chapel, the person showing us around gave a little talk about how to organize a funeral and the costs involved, including interestingly how to keep the costs down. I can definitely recognize a shift in focus of people who work in the death industry towards keeping the costs as low as possible.

Inside the chapel

As for the area with the ‘hearths’ as they called them, I think of them as furnaces for some reason but I’m guessing that’s the wrong word, it amazingly wasn’t as warm as you would think. Those doors do open and the people that work out the back bring the coffins through into the next room on hoist trolleys like we use at the mortuary. Four cremations can happen at a time, although only three were in use when we were there. We saw the different stages of cremation through the peep holes at one end, the raking process to remove the cremated remains and then the placing of a coffin into the hearth. The room itself was tiled and quite large, with waiting coffins on one side and the office and raking area on the other. To one side of the office is the room with the Cremulator, possibly the best named piece of machinery ever and then a further room with the containers of remains with names all stacked and waiting to be collected. The Cremulator not only sounds awesome, but it also finishes off the process by grinding up all the remains to the fine powder we know as cremation remains. Before this there are recognisable bits of bone alongside whatever else there may have been in the coffin. We saw the charred evidence of false knees and picture frames for example. We were also told about how items left in coffins can explode during the process, one pacemaker has exploded here costing thousands of pounds of damage, but also cans of beer go bang if not opened.

Interestingly, the metal left after is placed into a bin if the ‘recycling’ option is selected by the family at time of organising the cremation. These are then recycled, the titanium of knee and hip joints fetching a very pretty penny. The money is received back to the crematorium in the form of a cheque and that money is donated to some great local charities like St. Francis Hospice and Mitchell’s Miracles.

Side view of the building

After visiting the crematorium I do still feel like cremation is the biggest waste of energy it could be. The gas pipes going into the room are huge, and I dread to think what their gas bill comes to. I also think it a shame that you need to have a coffin to be cremated here, they will accept the wicker and cardboard types but I really don’t see the point in having one if you’re going to be burnt to ash. This really only strengthened my desire to see Alkaline Hydrolysis become legal in this country to save waste on coffins or gas! Please don’t cremate me when I’m dead, simple shroud in the ground thank you until other methods are available!

The other thing that I found astounding was their encouragement for to people to be embalmed. The comment was along the lines of the smell isn’t pleasant for them if you aren’t. There was a lot of nods in the room and my little voice from the back cried out ‘find out more about the process before you make that decision!’. Honestly, the lady showing us around told me that at the funeral directors you would be asked if you would like to see your relative before the funeral, if the answer is yes then off they go for embalming. I’ve not gone too much into the process before because I would like to see it one day properly, but I don’t like the sound of it and I’m not sure others would either. In my mind it’s mostly unnecessary apart from in a few occasions, particularly unnecessary if refrigeration is used and the funeral is within a couple of weeks. Plus it’s another charge to add on your bill that makes funerals so expensive. However, I’ll save my full embalming rant for another time.

In other news this week, totally smashed my 50 brains target and currently sitting at 54. My manager showed me the most effective way of completing a brain removal and I’m going to have a go at some point replicating what he did. I will explain when I do!

Death Cafe is coming up on Tuesday, hoping for a good turn out so if you would like to know more or are thinking of attending do get in touch.

MG x

#OOTD

(Outfit of the Day!)

I am often asked what I wear at work, and to start with on the first few occasions I kind of just assumed it was a slightly odd and prying question. Maybe it would be to see if I was wearing the correct stuf, like checking up on a trainee. However, I am asked quite a lot what I wear, what personal protective equipment (PPE) is worn in the post-mortem room, or even very specific questions about what brand of gloves we use. Here I want to provide you an insight into our outfits and equipment we use to work and keep us safe. Please note that as far as I know, through my limited experience in the past year, each mortuary and person who works there is different and has different preferences! This article only gives you an insight into the mortuary I work at and what I do or have learnt from those I work with.

To start, each morning when I arrive I change from my own clothes into scrubs. There are lots of different colours of scrubs available but I tend to wear green for post-mortems or work like that, or black if we have visitors, meetings or training sessions inside or outside of the mortuary. A lot of people around the hospital wear green scrubs every day, including doctors so i’ve occasionally been mistaken for a doctor while walking around the hopsital. No one else wears the black scrubs so this often prompts questions of where I work. I personally prefer our black scrubs, purely because they have a load of pockets whereas the green ones have just one. Anything with multiple pockets is amazing in my eyes.

In true Mortuary Gem style there had to be a photo with a Snapchat filter. Green scrubs vs. black scrubs.

On my feet most of the time are clog type rubber shoes. Like Crocs but without the holes on the top. Plus stripy Harry Potter socks, because why not. Everyone wears these (clogs; not the socks) but I have a purple pair that I acquired when I started working here. Other people wear black ones or blue ones. They’re as comfy as slippers but as ugly as actual clogs. I have a massive love/hate relationship with them.

I have all four Hogwarts Houses socks which I wear whichever I think suits my mood that day. Plus some generic Hogwarts and Fantastic Beasts socks. Yep, some days are Slytherin days.

The gloves we use in the fridge room are thin enabling you to work easier. They come in four sizes (small to extra large) and are placed in racks around the room at the doorways. I tend to wear medium but I can squeeze my hand into a small. They are usually purple or light blue like the photo below. They come in a box of loose gloves and you can take any to fit any hand.

Fridge room gloves, in the lovely purple colour.

The only time we add extra protective equipment really is inside the post-mortem room. The full outfit is the scrubs on underneath a surgical gown, apron, plastic oversleeves, gloves, hair/head cover and eye protectors or glasses. On our feet we wear wellies, or some people enter the post-mortem room with shoe covers over their own shoes, for example the forensic team when we have a forensic post-mortem.

The full stunning outfit with gown and without so you just have scrubs underneath

The surgical gown can be a blue silk gown like you see surgeons wear on tv. They have a high collar and tie at the back. Some are long and others are shorter but they come in so many different sizes and lengths it’s pot luck really. We get these from the hospital laundry along with the green scrubs. We also have once use only gowns that come in vacuum packs. They have a Velcro neck that I’m never sure if I’ve fastened correctly because it either is too tight or comes undone, and tie around the middle again. The upside to the disposable ones is that they breath a bit better I don’t sweat all the time when it’s hot. Obviously they do go in the waste after but the silk gowns are sent back to laundry to be treated and washed.

A not-very-helpful photo of a pile of silk gowns

The disposable gown packaging

A green plastic apron goes over the top of the gown and is to stop splashes or blood soaking through. They are long so cover your front all the way down to your wellies, pretty handy if someone accidentally fires a hose of water in your direction. I find the neck is low on these so I tend to stretch the loop and then knot it tighter so the neckline is higher. Just a personal preference I’ve figured out.

Apron-over-gown-over-scrubs-under-wellies and clogs to one side

The plastic sleeves are for a similar purpose. Water or other fluids splash up our arms and the last thing you need is that soaking through. Also sometimes you’re required to go further that glove deep into something. Not always as bad as you might think, occasionally it’s a bowl or sink of water! Although, all this plastic does make for a very hot outfit that’s just made for sweat. If you need to flex your muscles to do something or move around a lot then I nearly always break out in a sweat. I accept I’m not the fittest of them all but I think most people are in the same boat.

Gown sleeves with and without the plastic oversleeves

Glove wise we have two types in the post mortem room. We have these thicker blue gloves that are like rubber gloves with a rolled end and again they come in a box where you can just take two and they fit either hand. These blue gloves are also labelled Small, Medium, Large and Extra Large; again I take a medium. The other type are cream coloured and come in a box of paired packets which are labelled left and right. They are thinner but stronger and fit snugly to the hand, sized with numbers. I tend to use a 6.5 or a 7, and everyone seems to double up on these so I often do too. This can mean wearing a 6.5 and then a 7 on top. I like these gloves a lot as you can feel a lot more of what you are doing.

The blue thicker gloves not unlike but slightly thinner than the washing up gloves my mum used to own

The thinner gloves shown over the oversleeves, the boxes and the packet with right and left denoted

There’s two types of head or hair covers, one with an elastic back and one with a tie back. I always wear the yellow elastic back type and it fits snugly that most of the time I forget it’s even there. Which suits me fine! I haven’t actually tried the blue type but I probably should at some point. I wear my glasses and consider that eye protection as you’ve probably noticed from photos, but I know I should wear the proper stuff and have done before. We also have full face visors for when you need extra protection, or just masks for the mouth. Although I have found that masks just fog my visor or glasses when I breath which is not at all helpful.

Wellington boots are a must in the post-mortem room because of the water and other fluids that are on the floor. Other footwear is actually really slippery! I remember seeing in a Green Wing episode the mortuary team walking in file around the hospital all wearing wellingtons. Well we never do that; they don’t leave the post-mortem room and only go into the changing area after a good scrub with water and bleach!

In the photo above with the mask on my face, I am wearing a full body suit which zips up the front like a onesie, it even has a hood. This is used mainly for ‘high risk’ but also for messier than usual cases. Not pictured, but we have some respirators that are used for airborne or other situations when you might not want to breathe anything in. They are a full face mask that is sealed around your head, but with your ears on the outside which feels bizarre. There is a long tube that runs down your back to a pack that has filters which is fixed around your waist. I’ve only tried them on and I put them together with a colleague when they arrived, I’m not permitted to work on high risk cases yet so I won’t use them for work for some time.

In addition to what I wear, another question I was asked is if the different items we wear are recycled in any way. Waste and what we do with it has been a big focus of the mortuary and the hospital as a whole for some time. We recently switched a proportion of our waste to a different kind so it isn’t so costly or damaging to the environment when disposed of. Unfortunately however, some of our waste must be incinerated due to the danger it poses if it has been for a patient with a particular condition or illness. This is both costly and damaging but necessary. All of the packaging and non-infected waste is recycled or sent for recycling. The rest is given treatment which I believe means it is disposed of in the best way possible. What I do know is that although there are limitations as to what can be done with a lot of hospital waste, improvements are being made all the time to reduce the environmental damage caused.

I hope that this post has been as accurate as possible, has answered many questions and has been informative for everyone. If it has led to further questions, please do get in touch as I am happy to answer anything else you want to know!

MG x

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