The Things That Make Us Who We Are

One of the things I love about working with the deceased is thinking about the person and who they are. One of the funeral directors that visit us always come in with a little booklet for each person, and at the front is a little blurb which can be so detailed sometimes. I always make a point of reading it to find out if they liked gardening, or toy trains, or had three children and 18 grandchildren or something. The guys coming in think it’s a bit weird but really it’s nice to just know a little bit more about them, or maybe I’m just nosey!

Sometimes from families we get requests. One of the first viewings I helped with, the lady there asked that the person she was visiting was kept wrapped up in a duvet in the fridge because he didn’t like the cold. I’ve heard a story too where somebody came in with a torch for their relative because they didn’t like the dark. This week we had one such request, that we played one gentleman’s favourite song. The gentleman in question was originally from Iran, so I had my first taster of Persian music.

I can honestly say that it was a pretty cool song and had me dancing in the office, it doesn’t matter that I had no idea what the song is about or what the lyrics are. Added bonus that someone was playing an accordion in it and I have a bit of a soft spot for accordion players. Funnily enough and relating to this, I had a weird thought before when we were playing music by Queen in the post-mortem room that it would be very unfortunate if any of the deceased in there had a deep dislike of the band. Each one of the people taking up residence in the fridge might have loved classical music, or rap, or electro-pop, or could have hated music entirely.

One thing people always ask on the phone is for us to please look after their relatives and I always found this a bit odd before. Only because I kind of thought along the lines of what else would we do, of course we look after them! However I think I understand now that they’re not referring to our jobs, they’re referring to the smaller but more important aspects. Like wrapping that duvet around the person who always felt the cold. Leaving a light on for the one who hated the dark. Playing their favourite song for them to hear one last time. I believe people should not be afraid to ask for things like this. I think I will request I have something to hug in my arms, a cushion or a cuddly toy. I’m always hugging something, quite often a cat, and I think in death this should be no different. Although maybe not a cat with me in there ancient Egyptian style, I’m not planning on mummifying them.

Or maybe I could mummify one of them to be a forever pet…

Do you have anything you think you would like to have with you in the fridge? Let me know! Thank you for reading and any questions please do get in touch! I recently had a questions about our booking in process and how it works so I think I’ll do a long post about that next, watch this space and stay safe in the snow if you are in the UK!

MG x

The Week I Discovered Cerebellums Are Really Squishy

I was the first person to arrive at the mortuary yesterday morning, and the last person to leave. I mean out of the staff who work there, not other hospital staff or the deceased just to clarify. People arrive all through the night, deceased people accompanied by alive people who place them in fridges for us to book them in the following day. I thought it had been a busy winter so far, but this week proved me wrong. I did not know the meaning of busy in a mortuary until yesterday.

My feet are really sore, probably because up until October I had become very accustomed to sitting at a desk for seven and a half hours every day, today I barely sat down for longer than five minutes at any one time. Yet I enjoyed today a lot! I enjoyed my week in total in fact. Highlights of the week include singlehandedly topping up the extra capacity, continuously asking ‘can people please stop dying now?’, a brain that looked a lot like a cheap toy plastic brain, holding a leg in the air while my colleague stitched it up, booking tickets for both a reconstruction training day and Griefcast live, a night at Barts Pathology Museum learning about heart surgery and how the first operations involved poking a finger in and hoping for the best &, last but not least, helping with showing nurses around the mortuary alongside our booking in processes.

Back at Barts, many more exciting visits there in March for ‘Funeral March’

There was an awful lot crammed in to the last five days, I’m not sure where to even start. I am proud to say I have, in some cases poorly, removed five brains now in total. My manager advised to start counting how many, so that I’m years to come I can stand at a party and proudly say ‘I’ve removed the brains of over 5,000 people’ and sip my beverage awaiting the admiring looks. Or the nauseated faces. Either way, that’s cool. I think I’ll also recount how in the early days I had a tendency to mush the cerebellum with my finger tips.

I also removed a bladder and prostate fairly successfully, in that I didn’t pierce the bladder and it came out. I did get covered in another substance you find down in that region in the process but that’s by the by. I took the pathologist’s notes for two days which I like doing because she shows me the things she finds, like lung infections and kidney cysts. I think I scared her at one point peering through the glass of the viewing gallery with my glasses right up against it trying to see something. I always sit so close and uncomfortably so I can see that I ache a bit afterwards.

Imagine that looming over you while you worked….

I feel like although my feet ache like they did after I ran a half marathon (once upon a time in 2015 I could do that believe it or not), I learnt so much by getting stuck in and helping this week that I have a real sense of accomplishment in my exhaustion. I’m also really chuffed because I mastered a stitching technique I was shown where you do four stitches at a time before you pull it tight and it’s super-speedy. One of my main aims has been to get faster at stitching so I’m more useful in the post-mortem room.

So that was my week, insanely busy and enough to have me in bed at 9pm most nights when I wasn’t gallivanting around a museum. I am really looking forward to improving my skills further and learning new things, but for now I’ll bask in the glory of what I’ve done so far.

Thank you for reading and please do get in touch if you have any questions. I’m @gemmanorbs on Twitter and can be contacted at gemmanorburn@icloud.com.

MG x

Brompton Cemetery In The Sunshine

I first visited this cemetery a long time ago, I don’t remember exactly when but I think I was at university… I don’t even what to think about how long ago that was! In a post wedding fair haze (we decided to call yesterday (Saturday) something like ‘many weddings and a funeral’ but couldn’t settle on a title.. ‘many wedding dresses and a cemetery’ I think we finally ended with but it doesn’t quite sound right) Laura D and I wandered through Kensington to West Brompton and took a little stroll through the cemetery there.

Brompton Cemetery opened in 1940, and today it sits in between Earls Court and Chelsea as a grand, sprawling array of funerary monuments alongside a middle avenue and culminating with a chapel at one end in the style of St. Peter’s Basilica (cleverly noticed by Laura!). Much like Kensal Green, it is mostly a mass of graves and monuments sandwiched in together in a surprising fashion. Some stand out because of their grand angels or the odd proud mausoleum but largely they are similar height crosses all stood side by side. People of note buried here include Emmeline Pankhurst, the famous suffragette leader which is in appropriate nod to the recent anniversary of 100 years since the first women were given the vote in the UK.

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Crowded gravestones at Brompton Cemetery

Brompton also has the privilege of being a Royal Park and through this has been granted a Lottery grant to make repairs to the cemetery, restoration of the major monuments and construction of a visitors centre. This is interesting to me because, as discussed previously in relation to Kensal Green, I am fascinated by whether or not these sites should be ‘tourist’ attractions as such. I believe it is true that many of these sites are visited by many people either by events, organised tours or by people just wandering through. I am unsure of how and to what extent this should become ‘tourism’ as such. I think I am torn between my desire for death positivity in this country to become more prominent, and also wanting to preserve the respect and dignity of those laid to rest in these locations. I’m sure that in these plans for restoration and visitors this is all considered, and I think this is a very exciting prospect for Brompton as a whole however!

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Hey there Mr. Squirrel! 

While we were there, there were a large number of people also walking through unlike at Kensal Green. A lot of these were joggers and dog walkers who were clearly taking advantage of the quiet, green space in the city. It was also a very sunny day so it made for a really pleasant walk. As we started at the North end, we walked towards the chapel at the South end and it is very impressive. You walk up towards the colonnades, past the (locked) doors for the catacombs and then into the round basilica-like area in front of the chapel. It was serene in the sunlight and a lovely place to be. If you are ever nearby do take a little walk through, it won’t take you long and there’s a Carluccio’s waiting for you along the main road.

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The walk up towards the North end chapel

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The doors to the catacombs below…

Next up in the Magnificent Seven for us I think is probably Highgate. I’ve been there before while at university also so it will be interesting to see how much I remember. I know I do remember where Douglas Adams is buried however, and will be sure to make a visit as a fan. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to get in touch as always, and thank you for reading. Two down and five to go!

MG x

The Magnificent Seven

Nope, not the 2016 film starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, or the 1960 film of which that was the remake. I’m talking cemeteries, of course, I’m always on theme. In the 19th Century, the cemeteries of London were becoming a very serious problem. Think overcrowding, huge hygiene issues causing outbreaks of disease and just a not very pleasant situation at all. Up until 1902, burial was the only legal method of putting the deceased to rest and this was taking up a lot of space within the parish graveyards. London was a growing city with a booming population and with a lot of people being born also comes a lot of people dying. Bodies were spilling out of the available spaces and where previously areas had been cleared of ‘old bones’ to make space this was becoming less and less possible. The smell of rotting and decay would have been commonplace around these resting places and polluted the water supply, something that would utterly horrify everyone today.

It was deemed that something needed to be done and the this led to the formation of large suburban cemeteries in the style of other cities in Europe. The first of these was Kensal Green in 1832 which we visited in January, see my blog article here. This was followed by West Norwood in 1836, Highgate in 1839, Abney Park, Nunhead, Brompton all in 1840, & Tower Hamlets in 1841. These were given the name ‘The Magnificent Seven’ by Hugh Meller an architectural historian in 1981 (according to Wikipedia) after the previously mentioned 1960 movie.

One of the coolest things about these cemeteries is the architecture of them, and the vision of the funerary fashion of the Victorian period. You will see some of the grandest and largest monuments that will take your breath away. They are all in very different conditions, from being a Royal Park and with funding to make improvements, to still being a fully functioning cemetery, to being a woodland park with events for the public. Many have no idea they are even there, I only discovered Tower Hamlets cemetery existed a long time ago when I was going past on the train and spotted some headstones through the trees.

My friend Laura D. and I have decided that in 2018 we will visit all of these seven cemeteries and so far we have managed two already! If you are interested, here’s some links to where more information can be found online. Looking forward to seeing more and writing about them in future.

Hope you find this as fascinating as I do and thank you for reading!

MG x

 

 

Awards, Aromas & Anger

It would appear the busy times at the mortuary are yet to come to an end for a while. We had the busiest night on Wednesday which was a bit sad for a moment when I realised these people died on Valentines Day night! We prepared today for a busy weekend, it does make my week go insanely fast but we barely have time to do all the things we need to do at work.

My Manager this week was focussed on our booking in process. This is how initially check to see if the person may need either initial care or monitoring ongoing and to take all the information needed to record them. We check their name and other details provided on their wristband with our paperwork, we measure them and then ensure they are clean. We worked on getting this process as streamlined as possible and so it meant we could spend maximum time with each person. I think it’s working well and each day we make little tweaks to improve it, definitely a work in progress.

I’m proud to say that the Mortuary team won Team of the Week at the hospital trust this week! We had some executive staff come down this morning and award us with a fruit basket. We were nominated for our work in improving the end of life care in regards to the mortuary. In addition to the prize the team won last year, I think it’s great that the efforts are being recognised in such a way and celebrated like this. I ate so much fruit I felt quite sick though, a final banana was enough to bring on nausea at about 3pm!

Today we also had a post-mortem on a person who had been deceased for some time when they were found. I thought that maybe I could hack the smell better than I thought. I went into the room to see my colleague and the smell was too much. I didn’t gag, of which I’m proud, but it made me cough and I had this very deep urge to leave the room incredibly fast even though I’d only poked my head around the door. In the afternoon, we had to move this person to the freezer as they would only worsen in the fridge. The smell through two body bags is tolerable, if I’m honest ever since they had come in there had been a smell in the mortuary even from them being in the fridge. I thought I’d imagined it but then others commented too! I can only describe decomposition odour like very sweet vinegar and rotting food. It’s pungent and it lingers. You think you can smell it on you for ages afterwards even if others can’t, like the memory of it hangs about in your nostrils. There have only been a few occasions when I’ve stood on the bus and longed for a shower, I’m afraid today was one of those days. I’m not foolish enough to think I can avoid these cases going forward, I want to be able to do them! The only way to do that is to persevere when it’s happening and hope I can overcome the urge to get away from the smell.

Finally, I’d like to mention something that happened today. I had my first contact with someone who was very much less then pleasant, thankfully it was on the phone. It stayed with me a lot longer than it should have, but through that I could acknowledge some things. Firstly, people react to bereavement in different ways, and this can be aggression or anger amongst all the other emotions. Secondly, the trick is to not be intimidated by it but to stand your ground reasonably and try to help them in what manner you can. Thirdly, I can’t let people acting like this get to me because they weren’t the first to behave that way and they won’t be the last. All I can do is have compassion and be as kind as I can muster, take each day as it comes and move on rather than let it upset me.

Quite a deep thoughtful post this week, next week coming up I have some exciting adventures in the pipeline that I will post about and I’m hoping to get back to learning more in the post-Mortem room. Have a great weekend everyone and thank you for reading!

MG x

At Home With The Dead

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! Hope you’re having a good day no matter what, I’m still cheery even though my other half left my card and present at work. Maybe I’m cheery because Pancake Day is more my thing and yesterday I ate a lot of pancakes. Standard. Earlier this week I was pointed in the direction of this video available on BBC News, where a man explains why he kept his wife at home for 6 days after she died rather than admit her to a mortuary. He explains that for 6 days it allowed his family to grieve and deal with their bereavement in their own way even though such an act is deemed controversial it would appear.It begs me to ask myself if I would keep a loved one at home after they had died. Did you even know this was an option? I did feel that this video’s purpose was partly to just say that this was a thing you can do. As long as the death is registered then this is perfectly legal. In fact, for a long time and within living memory it was tradition to have your family member stay at home until the funeral. It allowed family members to visit and a period of mourning to be in place. It’s also very commonplace in a number of other cultures around the world, not as peculiar as you might believe then. I like the fact this man in Derbyshire decided that keeping his wife at home was what he wanted to do, for him and his family. I’ve read a few times that by seeing a loved one while grieving can help you come to terms with your loss. I understand the thought process behind this and it’s an aspect I’d definitely like to look into further. He is quoted as wanting to help change attitudes towards death and I’m all for anything which progresses forward in this way.

For now, let me know your thoughts on this because I’d love to discuss further and hear your viewpoints. I’d like to point out I had my own reservations as well as positives, simply through what changes would happen in the body six days after death and whether I would want to see a loved one in those stages of decomposition. I’m not certain what would happen or what might have been in place to prevent it but the chance there would be some kind of changes is very high I would imagine. If you have any thoughts you’d like to share please do get in touch via social media or the comments below.

Hope you are having a great week and thank you for reading!

MG x

Do I Actually Own a TV?

It was a fair question to be asked this week and got me thinking. I usually notice when I say something regularly, and of late it’s become ‘I was listening to a podcast the other day….’. Once upon a time it was ‘reading’ and ‘book’, but I seem to have become engrossed and a tad obsessed with downloading podcasts and absorbing all they have to offer. Thought it might be interesting for me to share some of my favourites and why I like them, seeing as it seems to be the way I spend most of my spare time these days!

If you don’t know, and apologies if this is stuff you already know, you can download podcasts from a variety of different platforms but I tend to use iTunes and Podbean (many other podcast providers are available!). Podcasts are like radio shows of a sort, but you can download them and listen whenever you like. They can be factual, comedy, drama, any kind of format you can think of and the best bit is that they are free! This does often mean listening to promotions or adverts (usually for mattresses or Hello Fresh I’ve noticed) but sometimes those offers are really good too! It’s a win-win situation.

WOWooden Overcoats – I had to start with Wooden Overcoats because I think it’s my favourite by far. It’s a tale about a channel island called Piffling and a town where there are two rival funeral directors. It’s hilarious and clever, and Season 3 comes out very soon though you still have time to binge listen to the first two seasons before that happens. They’re also doing some live shows coming up, I’ve been to one before and it was wonderful! You will often find me telling people about this show on a regular basis.

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The Bright Sessions – This podcast is a thought-provoking drama where each episode you meet a different person who is undergoing therapy. Each individual has an interesting ‘ability’ that adds a great deal of interesting aspects to the session. A great listen with some very tense moments. Think X-Men but not in a superhero world and with more realistic powers (if that even makes any sense).

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Geek Chic’s Weird Science – Dr Jack Lewis and Liana Bird discuss the latest science news and discoveries with a touch of wonder and humour. I really like this podcast because they highlight news stories I often miss or aren’t in the forefront of the main news. Each story is explained in a way I can understand and they often revisit stories or thoughts from previous episodes.

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Griefcast Cariad Lloyd hosts this poignant podcast where each week she interviews a different person about a bereavement they have been through. She relates each one to how she lost her Dad when she was fifteen and each interviewee speaks frankly about what they went through and how they coped with it. Cariad asks some great questions and the openness of each interview amazes me. I’ve cried and laughed along with the people on here and it’s really opened my mind to the experiences of the people who come to visit their relatives at work.

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Invisibilia –  A difficult one to describe, but the hosts of Invisibilia describe some wonderful stories and feats of humanity, the idea being that there is an invisible side of life that they discuss. I wanted to mention this because some of the stories they discuss are amazing.

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Made of Human – Sofie Hagen is a comedian and a wonderful human being, and I love her a lot. Her weekly podcast is interviewing different people and talking about what makes us human. Often talking to people about their own struggles with things like anxiety, depression and other serious mental health issues or health issues that are also, to some extent, taboo.

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The Unseen Hour – This is a horror-comedy show which is silly in places and cut with monologues or songs that are performed by various people each time and they can be plaintive, emotive or just plain strange. I love the style of this show and it’s familiar sense of entertainment. I keep meaning to book tickets to go and see this recorded live at some point.

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Finally, to finish off, I couldn’t do a post about podcasts and not recommend my own one (even though I’m not suggesting it is in the same league as those above!). Once a month, Adam and myself record This Little Island  and discuss a different topic, sometimes joined by a special guest. We have covered topics such as feminism, mental health, fake news and, more recently, the phenomenon of the love of underdogs. I love making this podcast and researching the different topics. If you are new to podcasts, or just after some new ones to listen to, then check out the ones I’ve suggested above. I could keep going with suggestions, but I think this is enough for now, maybe I will do another post in the future.

That’s all from me for today, other than to say that this week the other trainee in the mortuary left to go on maternity leave. I shall miss her lots but wish her the very best with her new adventure into motherhood! Thank you for reading and have a great weekend.

MG x

 

Forgetfulness, Feelings & Families

Turns out my brain was not prepared for work one bit on Monday morning. Getting up felt torturous, and once at work it took me a while to get back into the swing of things. Particularly notable when I stared at the intercom and couldn’t remember which order to push the buttons to answer it. There are only three buttons.

However, it soon felt like I’d not been away and the activities of the mortuary swallowed me back in. I’d been feeling very positive about my training and about getting on with learning certain aspects of the job so that was good. That also meant overcoming the fear I’ve had since I started of doing a family viewing on my own. I’d decided before I went off on leave that this was the week to do one. I know my mind, and the worst thing that can happen is to throw me in and see if I sink or swim with no warning. No, I like to panic, worry and stew over the possibility of sinking for some duration before the thing happens. So that’s what I did.

Yesterday I answered the phone to someone requesting a viewing. They were very friendly, polite and thankful for us helping them so I knew this was the one to do. I told my boss there and then- this is the one. He seemed relieved I’d finally decided I was okay to do it!

So today the time of the appointment came and although I found myself thinking of it all day (and scared Gemma decided that it was also the time to do the bins and hide a bit so then it might be forgot that I said I would do this one), I did it nonetheless. I just went and did it, and it was fine. I hope. I’m the queen of overthinking and analysing everything, but I do hope they thought I did okay and it wasn’t very obvious that I’d never done it before.

After a day of up and downs, I also managed to lock myself out of my house and had to be rescued by my Dad, I feel quite exhausted both physically and mentally. That’ll teach me for having a week off I suppose!

MG x

Thoughts of a Seven-Year-Old

I had the wonderful chance to catch up with a friend and her kids this weekend. I still haven’t decided if it was stoically, or stupidly, British but we headed to a local country park trail in the mizzling rain to do a children’s activity afternoon. It was fun even if the staff were clearly beyond enjoying having mud, crying children and deer food thrown about their visitor centre. Also, the trail was quite hard to follow and we gave up halfway at which point the youngest of our group cried out ‘we’re lost and I’m very tired!’. The inner toddler in me echoed those sentiments and just wanted a cup of tea and a sit down.

On the wander back, I was holding the hand of my friend’s seven year-old when she asked me ‘Where do you work?’.

A lot of thoughts went through my head. I’ve discussed a lot about talking to your kids in a frank way but I hadn’t thought about what to say to other people’s kids! I immediately didn’t want to upset her but also didn’t want to lie. ‘I work at the hospital’ I replied, to which she quickly responded with ‘Are you a midwife?’. Bear in mind earlier yesterday she had asked me if the peacock showed off to the peahen because he wanted to marry her and you can easily gauge how a seven year old thinks! It’s adorable, and innocent, and heartwarming.

‘Not a midwife’ I said, ‘Quite the opposite, I look after people’. I hesitated. This wasn’t easy but I looked at my friend who smiled and said ‘You can tell her!’. So I told her I look after people after they die. That when people get sick, I clean them, dress them, and look after them until they go for their funeral. Her response amazed me. She explained that she thought she would be very good at my job because she had won a game at school where they played looking after dead people. She asked if she could come see me at work one day. She then asked if I saw people die, so I explained that I only start looking after them once they are dead. She clearly thought about this for a minute and smiled and reiterated again that she would very much like to come to where I work.

I think a lot of the time we forget that children are far more resilient than we realise. My instinct was to shield her from the grim reality but her parent knew better than me that she would be fine, and she was.

Hope you’ve all had a great weekend so far; it’s not over yet! Back to work for me tomorrow, normal service will resume. Oh and if you wonder what I said about Mr. Peacock, he did want to marry Ms. Peahen. Of course he did.

Mr. Peacock strutting his stuff about the car park

MG x

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