Teamwork, Bad Smells & a Brain Count Update!

Happy Friday to you all! I would like to start with the fact I have been very lucky to have another short week, and with the impending bank holiday I get another next week. It’s been nice to rest and reflect after the recent busy weeks and have some time to plan what’s going to happen going forward!

The mortuary has been busy with lots of different things happening. I think I’m starting to get the hang on the small stuff now, I definitely find myself asking less questions about the basics or in response to queries from other people. We’ve had a lot of post-mortem work happening which has meant I’ve been able to see a lot more and learn lots which is great. There was one day this week where the whole team (minus my colleague on maternity leave!) were in the post-mortem room working on people, chatting and showing each other what we had found. It was a really great time and it’s a shame it can’t always be like that but other activities often take place all at the same time limiting who can do what.

There has been an awful smell in the corridor outside the mortuary that the funeral directors and people visiting use when they come in. Everyone seems to assume it’s us… but our mortuary smells lovely! It’s funny how if there’s ever a bad smell in the hospital people assume it must be us. In fact, usually it’s the drains or the kitchens and emit really quite terrible smells sometimes too. Although, it says a lot that I don’t really notice them anymore and I don’t think the corridor smells that bad at all really.

Looking forward there’s some exciting stuff coming up. Plans are already taking shape for the next Death Cafe, although we are thinking about changing venue after a chat about the noise levels and the space at the last one. I’ve submitted my review of the last one claiming it an absolute success so I can’t see why the next one can’t be bigger and better!

Next weekend is the BlogConLDN which I am very intrigued to be attending. I think it’s mostly aimed at lifestyle or fashion and beauty bloggers but I can’t see why I shouldn’t be able to get something out of the day. If anything, there’s a complimentary yoga class which I will take full advantage of! My other half persuaded me to get some business cards printed with my blog url on them so I can hand them out to anyone who’s interested. I’ve double sided them with Death Cafe info too incase anyone asks me about that. So now I feel like a real ego monster and will probably never give them to anyone! Like the true geek that I am, when the printing company offered to print a mug with Mortuary Gem and my blog logo I couldn’t resist. That mug is officially known as the ‘Ego Mug’ because I feel ridiculous having even asked for it to be made!

Lastly, Brain Update! I made it to 25 brains removed, which I think was my first goal that I set myself. Next goal is 50. So far I’ve think it’s fair to say I’ve mastered the basics of evisceration and only struggle with some aspects now if they are complex or unusual. Since cutting myself with the PM40 I’ve become very aware of my hand placement and how to cut away from my fingers safely. I’ll get back to discussing topics from work next week hopefully and some more interesting things I’ve seen.

Thank you for reading, as always please let me know if you have any questions or comments and enjoy your weekend! I plan to spend lots of time in the hammock with a book (weather allowing of course!).

MG x

Rippleside Cemetery

Rachel and I went on a little adventure yesterday in search of a gravestone at Rippleside Cemetery in Upney in East London. 9 minutes on the tube from my home was well worth the effort. Rippleside is slightly hidden up the road from Upney tube station just one stop away from Barking on the district line. It has a small gate and a sign that is overgrown by shrubbery opposite a Ford car dealership. I went there in search of a man called John Crosby for reasons I will explain another time (intriguing? Yes!) but i can thoroughly recommend a wander if you’re ever in the area.

I should have reminded them their sign was slowly becoming part of the hedge!

I stood by the map sign at the entrance obviously looking a little perplexed when an older gentleman with a kind smile pulled up on a ride on lawn mower and asked if I was okay. I explained I was looking for a grave but I had nothing but a name, a date of death and a number that didn’t appear to correspond to anything in particular. He said the office was shut but he could go in and help me out, so he went off round the back and I waited out the front. As I was waiting a woman in a suit came out of the office and told me it was shut quite abruptly. Then the man popped his head round the door and said ‘Come on in!’. Lesson learned- sometimes the staff who are supposed to help are not that helpful, but those in other jobs are actually much better at it!

Once inside, he pulled out a dusty ledger book and we found 1921 with Mr. Crosby’s entry. The plot number was there but in traditional, beautiful script style it could have been a letter J, G, or L! He said the row number was what was important so off we trotted to the correct row in the hope of locating him.

On the way he showed me the first grave in the cemetery; a simple cross for a 6 day old little girl from 1886 huddled in amongst all the other graves in that area. One other thing he showed me was a huddle of graves to the side all tightly packed, he explained these were remains taken from Barking Abbey by St. Margaret’s church in Barking and relocated here. He said he had wanted to line them all up against the fence so you could read them but he was told they could not be moved from the relocated remains. He is such a fascinating gentleman I think I need to revisit and get his name to credit him properly!

The huddled gravestones from St. Margaret’s/Barking Abbey

Alas, John Crosby’s gravesite was used twice again after he was placed there. It was last used in the 1970s and probably bought by that family. However he will still be down there with his two new neighbours in death. It is very common for graves to be reused like this is no known relatives or grave markers are present. It’s unlikely John had a permanent grave marker or known family and therefore his plot would have come up for use again after a certain amount of time.

I felt bad that I had arranged to meet Rachel there but all this had happened before she arrived! However we did go for a long walk around he cemetery and made friends with a carnation munching squirrel. While over the other side of the site, the man pulled up on the lawnmower once again with a printout he had found. It wasn’t a J, G or an L but an I and he had all the details of the what had happened to the plot. I really can’t thank him enough for his help!

It’s a lovely little cemetery with some impressive architecture and grave markers. I’ll be sure to go back again too because I noticed some family names like those on my Mum’s family tree that she now would like to go see.

Rachel and the fearless, carnation-munching squirrel

Thank you for reading and I hope this post was interesting to you! I will explain more about John Crosby and his importance another time, I wanted this post to focus on Rippleside. I also now want to go visit the remains of Barking Abbey and St. Margaret’s Church which I might try to do next week or on the Bank Holiday.

MG x

The First Hornchurch Death Cafe

Last Wednesday my dear friend Rachel and I got together and hosted the first (certainly not the last) Hornchurch Death Cafe. I’ve had a few days to take it all in before writing it up due to a very busy few days escaping to the Isle of Wight for a wedding! However time has only made me realise what a successful event we put together and how excited I am for the future.

Leading up to the Death Cafe I had probably even got fed up with myself banging on about it to anyone who would listen. I had mentioned it to everyone and received a mixture of responses. I made flyers, I picked up a few little bits and bobs for ideas I had and then sat down with Rachel a couple of weeks beforehand to go through what we planned to do.

In all honesty, we didn’t plan as much as we drank wine and caught up! There wasn’t an awful lot of planning to do because Death Cafe doesn’t need a plan. The whole event is so simple in nature that it just works. People may need prompting but generally if you attend a Death Cafe you want to talk about death with other people.

When we arrived at the pub on Wednesday I was nervous because I had no idea who would attend or how it would go. I’d arranged the booking of a table for eight at the back of he pub away from the main part (read that as near to the toilets) in the hope we could escape any other big groups or noise. I didn’t account for the speaker pumping out music above our heads but that’s something to bear in mind for next time.

The closer it got to seven o’clock, the more people showed and we quickly filled the table for eight and took on another table and then another. Eventually we had a group of sixteen all sat around looking at us as hosts to kick things off. After a brief introduction all round, Rachel had a very good idea to number our list of topics and then get guests to pick a number. This kicked off proceedings and we discussed topics including natural burial woodlands, discussing death with children, what happens to your online persona when you die and do you know what you want at your own funeral.

I think we were very lucky with those who attended and that they all had incredible and great reasons for attending. Either due to personal interest or their career leading them to have an involvement in death, everyone had fantastic ideas and examples to contribute. The two hours absolutely flew by and I could not be happier with the results! I received some very lovely feedback from those who attended at the end and was asked several times if it would be a regular occurrence. I’m pleased to say I don’t know why it couldn’t be and I fully intend to host them again in the future.

If you did attend on the night and would like to comment below with your experience please do! Or if you didn’t attend but either would like to or have any questions please do the same. I would say that if you are interested but are unsure of if it’s for you or hesitating regarding attending then please contact me at gemmanorburn@icloud.com and we can talk it through!

Thank you for reading and thank you to those that made the Hornchurch Death Cafe the great event it was!! Hope you’ve all had great weekends.

MG x

Glorious Decomposition

Warning- this discussion may not be everyone’s cup of tea!

I hope you’ve all been enjoying the warmer weather! I knew exactly what to discuss this week, when my colleague told me that the recent change had led to the increase in what we know as ‘decomps’. Unfortunately, those that lie somewhere and aren’t found for a period of time will end up this way. Often, the are only discovered by an odour noticed by neighbours or passers by and the odour is heightened in periods of warmer weather. So on that, let’s discuss human decomposition!

The human body starts to break down as soon as the heart stops and life is gone. Almost straight away it becomes an environment for bacteria and microorganisms to thrive. Larger beings like insects also begin to notice the body quite soon after death. The stomach that’s great at breaking down food in life will begin to break itself down and eats away from the inside out.

The first signs are discolourations, purging and rigor mortis. The human body can bloom into all manner of beautiful shades of pinks, purples, reds and greens. Contents of the stomach and other areas build up and the movement of gases force them out the easiest available routes. If the staff on the wards don’t position the deceased correctly, often rigor mortis sets in before we can ensure their mouths and eyes are closed. Rigor mortis can be overcome by flexing the joints and gradually working it out. The first time I was shown that I thought I would surely break the person’s arm but it soon loosened and became flexible once more. These are all signs we see every day at the mortuary.

For our longer term people, I monitor their condition ongoing looking out for the further signs of decay. The signs I see are traces of breakdown of tissues, actual mould or skin slippage and blisters. When this begins to occur we have to consider putting the person into our deep freeze. It’s all about temperature. At room temperature this all happens quickly, 2 degrees in the fridge can slow the process right down and -16 in the freezer can cease the process to some extent until the person is once again defrosted. It is true, however, that you cannot stop decomposition only slow it right down. Even embalming does not prevent it entirely, but does cease full decomposition for some time.

The much later stages we see only when we receive the ‘decomps’. So far I’ve seen anything from the bloated and green to mostly mummified. How a person decomposes greatly depends on the conditions they are in and no one really knows- hence why we really need a body farm to determine this better. All I know is, the warmer the weather the quicker. And the more maggots I’ve seen. After what is known as the ‘bloat’ stage, the body starts to break down from that to skeletal remains.

I’d like to just say a couple of things on this, beginning with the fact this is natural. This is what your body wants to do. Personally I don’t see that as wrong. Nothing can be done to stop it apart from cremation and I’m not sure I favour being blasted with nearly a thousand degrees of flames. I also certainly don’t want to be pumped full of chemicals to pollute the ground I’m buried in. But that’s just me, you may feel very differently and I’d be interested to hear from you!

Speaking of my own wishes once I’m dead, I think I will write a post about that soon! Don’t forget that my Death Cafe is happening next Wednesday (16th May) and you should come along if you are able to! Any questions on decomposition, or anything else at all please get in touch.

Thank you for reading as always,

MG x

Morbid Curiosity

It’s about time I got around to answering your questions isn’t it? I will begin with a slight warning however, I might go into more detail here than you would like. I will always try and mention this at the start of any post I write if I think any contents might be upsetting. If that all sounds good, settle in and here we go!

Why did you start this blog?

Good question! In some ways I was asked to actually and it seemed like a great way of not having to repeat myself telling people what I was up to. So don’t feel annoyed if I say ‘Read my blog!’ in response to some things you ask me.

How did you get here?

The long version is here in my early blog posts, the short version is a combination of luck and hard work with a sprinkle of determination.

Why do you want to do this?

I can’t explain why very well, it’s something I thought I would love to do. I didn’t try for a long time because other people were repulsed and I thought I should be too in a way. However you have to follow what makes you happy and working with the dead seems to make me happy! I want to help people and I think this is the best way I can. I’m aware of how unbelievably cheesy that sounds.

Do you ever get grossed out?

Yes and no. Some things are still odd but I’m definitely at that stage where the fascination takes over the offensive nature of what I do. Don’t get me wrong, strong odours are gross no matter how accustomed to them you get but I’m yet to gag or feel really nauseous. Plus, sadly for my waistline, I still manage to tuck into my lunch every day!

How do you take out a tongue?

Not the way you probably think. From the chest cavity upwards. Your tongue is at the top of everything inside you and is connected all the way down to your bladder. We go up through from the opening in the chest, cutting through the connective tissues to loosen the trachea and oesophagus and then the tongue. I find this the hardest bit, you can’t actually see a lot of what you do but I think I’m finally getting it. We look at the tongue for bite marks or any other damage that may have happened in case you were wondering!

How do you remove a brain?

Using a bone saw and a scalpel. First an incision is made from ear to ear round the back of the head. Then the scalp is reflected back over the head loosening the connective tissues as you go and revealing the top of the skull. Once this is back enough, the bone saw is used to cut out a large section of the skull in order to reveal most of the top of the brain. Very skilled people can leave the dura (membrane around the brain) intact while sawing but I’m no where near that stage yet. The brain is eased out at the front and the various connections severed until it is free and it can be removed.

How do you place the organs back?

Everything will go back inside the person’s chest and abdomen in big clear bags called viscera bags. Usually average at two per person. When I say everything this includes the brain. The only items removed are anything that goes for further testing, like samples of fluids or tissues or occasionally whole organs. The head is packed and stitched, the body is stitched back together neatly and so there are no leaks.

How long does a post-mortem take?

How long is a piece of string? Straightforward ones can be quick. More complicated ones longer. We usually complete them in a morning but also usually have more than one happening at the same time. They take as long as they need to!

What’s the weirdest/grossest/coolest thing you’ve seen?

As an archaeologist I used to get asked the same question, usually what was the best thing I’d found. It’s odd, that this is probably the most often question from people and I imagine they want to hear a cool story. Alas, when I was an archaeologist I would ramble about this awesome piece of Samian ware Roman pottery I once found in a field in Colchester. Now I’m a trainee APT I have no idea what to say. Each day is interesting for a number of reasons. I decline to talk about specific cases, particularly on here, because you never know how traceable that could be even with the smallest of pieces of information supplied. Please don’t be offended that I won’t mention something you find amazing, maybe it’s just something that I find amazing- the whole topic is very subjective.

What is a Death Cafe?

Well how timely you should ask! Death Cafe is an organisation and an event, and I am holiding one in a week’s time next Wednesday. Please come along if you are about, it’s looking to be an exciting evening!

Keep the questions coming, especially if any of the above has prompted anything you would like to know about!

MG x

Death Actually Is All Around

The title is supposed to be a take on the Love Actually line that ‘Love actually is all around’ but it turned out to sound somewhat darker than I intended. It’s been a very long bank holiday weekend for me as I took off Thursday and Friday for our engagement party preparations. If you follow me on Instagram, you will know I spent two days preparing, one day hosting, half a day clearing up and then ever since you’ve been able to find me snoozing in a hammock. When I’ve not been high up in the sky in a hot air balloon that is. It’s been very enjoyable but also eventful that’s for certain!

Up, up and away!

In between snoozing in my hammock, I’ve been reading the book From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty. You may be aware that I adore pretty much everything Caitlin does and hugely look up and admire her. Caitlin is an American mortician who owns her own funeral home, she also writes books and has a YouTube channel where you can watch her talk about different subjects on the theme of death. I have found myself emulating her enthusiasm and functionally morbid ways when talking to people myself about death.

I finished the above named book today and I came to the following passage I’d like to share because it perfectly describes how I feel about my work.

I have met quite a few people this weekend who didn’t know what I did for work and when they found out there was, as always, a huge mix of reactions. I think my favourite was ‘oh I thought you worked with animals!’. It seems to be a big divide between those who are interested and those who are repulsed, I would say more people are interested and I’m still a bit taken aback when people are incessant that I don’t speak about my job in front of them at all.

Sadly, I see their need for me to not speak of my work as a complete denial of what is inevitable. I spent a while thinking everyone would be better off if they thought exactly like me but that was foolish and I’ve now come round to the idea that the key is the acceptance part described in that passage. We don’t have to like the fact that we will die one day, but as long as we can acknowledge and accept that it will happen we are in a much healthier place. Acceptance will lead to the necessary conversations to make the process easier for everyone. If I can help progress this way of thinking in any way I can then I will.

I’m back at work tomorrow after five days out and I’m a little apprehensive as always when I’ve had time off. I wonder what I’ve missed and who we’ve had admitted. I hope I can get up early and have a straightforward start beginning with my cycle in. My anxiety brain will go through it all which means I might not sleep much tonight even if I did get up at 4am to climb into a wicker basket and take off into the sky this morning. I hope you’ve all had a relaxing weekend and thank you for reading. I will update later in the week about what’s been going on at the mortuary.

MG x

Abney Park Cemetery

Firstly, apologies for the delay in posting this! No excuse, but the week has been a busy one with preparations for our engagement party this weekend and I have managed to cram in a lot apart from writing a blog post from the weekend. Secondly, another apologies that this will be a largely photo based post with a lack of words (some of you may prefer this!).

Thirdly, I cannot recommend visiting Abney Park any more highly. It is a wonderful place, a nature reserve packed full of graves and history. What more could you possibly want? If this sounds right up your street then head over to the website and check out one of their tours. The tour that Laura D and I attended was organised by the Old Operating Theatre as the start of their summer of events. It was hosted by Romany Reagan and Samantha Perrin also known as the Doyennes of Death.

Here are some photos I took on the day, if you would like to know more please check out the links provided or feel free to ask questions! Abney is the fourth of the Magnificent Seven we have visited this year and we have just planned the fifth visit coming up in May.

The Egyptian gates facing the high street

Looking from the gates into the cemetery

There was some temporary dog kidnapping…

Tour group assembled!

Much of the way is paths like this or smaller

William & Catherine Booth founders of the Salvation Army

Looking through the chapel gates to outside

Inside the chapel which is undergoing restoration

We all know I can’t resist an arty photo!

The tour we attended focused on some of the famous and wonderful woman who were laid to rest in Abney Park. I didn’t want to mention each one and steal the tour material, but it was a fascinating leap back in time to aeronauts, performers and some really pioneering people.

I was most enthralled by a project taking place at Abney Park to map and note all of the graves that are there. Painstaking work by volunteers to uncover and name all the plots there is ongoing and I am sorely tempted to give up some time to help out. I will let you all know if anything comes of this.

In the meantime, apologies again for the rushed post. Thank you for checking out my blog and I will provide an update on work at the end of the week!

MG x

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