A Rainy Sunday in Nunhead

I woke up early again this Sunday! I had my breakfast, said goodbye to my other half and off I headed out in the rain. For the day was made for cemetery wandering and cemetery wandering I was about to do!

The gates from within the cemetery

Nunhead cemetery is one of the least known of the Magnificent Seven Victorian cemeteries and the fifth one that Laura D and I have visited this year. It’s large gates crop up along a road that looks completely like any other suburban road with housing on the other side. There are free tours run by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery which is excellent, and they accept donations which is also excellent. It’s lovely to see the members upon entering the cemetery and their little hut. We asked if we could use the facilities before the tour began and I was amused that the toilet doubled up as a tool shed and the cloakroom!

The view from the toilet seat

The tour started and we were introduced to the cemetery and the gatehouses. There are two gatehouses, one of which is the home to a family and the other which is shrouded in fencing and scaffolding- a derelict wreck of its former self. We were told that there is funding to restore the gatehouse but the use is still under discussion, future home anyone?

The fencing around the derelict gatehouse

We begin by wandering to the side of the derelict gatehouse, to where a platform with two steps up to it resides. Keith, our tour guide, revealed that this area is what is left of one of the five catacombs that were in the cemetery, but are now sealed. It proved that the catacombs were not very popular among the deceased, but popular for vandalism and children playing in the cemetery so it was decided these would be sealed shut and closed. I find this quite sad as catacombs are very interesting to me! Behind this flat area are also the relocated remains of those who were buried in the St. Christopher le Stocks graveyard which was cleared to make way for an extension of the Bank of England. I’ve noticed that graveyards often have the relocated remains of people from elsewhere, so rest in peace is not always permanent!

The flat top of the sealed catacombs

Looking up the path towards the chapel

The main chapel here is beautiful and a great example of gothic revival architecture, designed by Thomas Little. Sadly it was gutted by fire in the 1970s but the structure that remains is still a sight to behold. Opposite the chapel there is a tall monument among the others that is slightly different. It has an eclectic mix of fonts and styles, an abundance of symbols and carvings around it. This is the grave of Mr Daniels who was the chief mason to the cemetery, Keith told us that his grave is like a catalogue of designs for people to choose from when designing their own.

The Chief Mason’s monument

I honestly could write about the cemetery for thousands of words but I will only scrape the surface of what I discovered there. The tour was so expansive and fascinating. I would to encourage you to go yourself if you are able to and I’ll provide some highlights of the rest. Unlike most of the other Magnificent Seven, there are no famous names you would recognise buried at Nunhead. There are famous people of the time however, music hall stars and industrialists that you would have known in Victorian London. The inventor of canned food is there, Brian Donkin, and the notable Catholic Lord Mayor of London Dekeyser.

Volunteers recording the engravings on the tombstones

The cemetery has a viewpoint all the way to St. Paul’s from the top, that even on a drizzly day could be seen if squinting through the rain. The top is 200ft above sea level and is quite a climb but worth it. After the climb we enter the ‘dissenters’ area of the cemetery where it is unconsecrated ground and the non-Anglicans are buried.

This mausoleum really caught my eye

The whole area is a great nature reserve and full of wildlife and trees which is something I find funny. We are now seeking out ‘green burials’ in cemeteries that look like parks or woodland, all while our Victorian cemeteries are being taken back by nature nonetheless and forming woodland around the gravestones. It’s a funny thought, I do wonder if the days of perfectly preened lawns and large clear spaces are coming to an end towards a greater balance between our input and nature.

The area of the site of the origin Dissenters Chapel

If you would like the visit Nunhead or find out more, the website is here. Please, please go on a free tour if you can! I was told they never cancel them for the weather either. If you have any questions or would like to get in touch, please also don’t hesitate!

MG x

Flood, Fire & Blood

My week in summary! Fairly long post I’m afraid but thought I would update you all on what’s been happening.

Sunday

Sunday morning I got up nice and early and headed to the Gardens of Peace Muslim cemetery. I was very kindly granted a complimentary place on a Funeral Awareness Course for Women by the owner after I had spoken to him about wanting to understand more about the different religions I encounter each day through work. What an eye opening experience! It was a morning course designed to educate women in the various rituals and practices around death in Islam, including a talk in regards to what the Quran tells us about death and how to act around it. I chatted with some of the women during and after, they were all so friendly (maybe because they were curious as to why I was there being the only non-Muslim in the whole place) and kind, I felt very welcome!

In the afternoon I recorded a long overdue episode of the podcast I cohost with Adam called This Little Island. It’s the pair of us chatting about various things, the latest episode being a general catch up on what we’ve been up to. If you fancy a listen you can find it on Apple podcasts or Podbean. I plug Death Cafe for anyone who’s interested in finding out more.

Monday

Busy day at work as per the norm recently, we had to catch up on the booking in from the weekend as well as do some testing of our new computer system that is being implemented soon. I’m very eager to get it up and running and using it! My colleague that is on maternity leave popped in for the morning to catch up on a few bits and it was great to see her too.

In the afternoon I headed over to our other hospital mortuary to cover the opening time there. I was faced on arrival by a giant puddle and a leaky ceiling. Not an ideal start! This made the floor very slippy and then started a two hour mopping, drying and cleaning session with not a chance to do a lot else. I did have a few funeral directors turn up and I welcome them to our new ‘water feature’. Sometimes I have the worst sense of humour!

Tuesday

Packed out post mortem room and time limitations meant that I wasn’t able to practice too much in there, but I did get to try out a couple of different stitches. I really like the Wormian stitch (I think it’s called that!) where the skin lies flat if you get it right but you have to line up your stitches precisely. I think I got the hang of this one today, and another stitch I don’t know the name of but leaves the skin around the stitching almost looking like a spiral shape, it’s satisfyingly twisty.

I spent a lot of time rushing or walking about, trying to answer phones and doors as well as fetching bits and bobs for others. I was asked to go and get some cassette lids for the histology samples that were taken today so I flew up three flights of stairs to the lab only to find myself incredibly out of breath. I’m no way near as fit as I’d like to be! I bumped into the guy who showed me around the lab a few weeks back so he helped me find what I needed. Small, rectangular metal lids that sit in the top of he plastic casing, perforated with holes to allow the processes to take place for preservation.

In the afternoon, I was covering the other hospital again so I headed over there on the staff bus. I’d hoped to treat myself to a Subway salad on the way but the queue was huge so I settled for the slightly smaller queue for the hospital shop and grabbed a salad from there just making it in time for the bus.

No floods on that day but I did have a busy one, booking in all the people from the weekend and the night before. I had someone come to check the light was safe from where the water was coming in and also someone swing by to check a printer could be installed next week. Rushing about is good because the day goes fast, but it’s bad because you don’t feel like there’s enough hours in the day to get anything done. I resolved to get everything up to date with the records over there and I did!

Wednesday

I had another day off, lucky me! You might think I am running out of leave, but taking days off here and there seems to work quite well in appearing to have lots of time off but actually conserve your leave effectively. In fact I just booked a trip to Copenhagen in the Winter. While I do love the hot weather making up for the fact I didn’t get a Summer holiday anywhere, it’s also got me dreaming of jumpers, scarves and being cosy by a fire. Four days in freezing cold Denmark with Laura B to look forward to has sorted out that craving.

Harry Potter & The Cursed Child

I spent the day off with my other half in London watching the Harry Potter play The Cursed Child which was great! I also did a little bit of Death Café planning and visited my parents who had their wedding anniversary, congratulations to them! The next Death Café has been confirmed as the 21st August at our lovely venue The Sweet Rose Cakery. I have made a very summery flyer as you can see below, and hope for record numbers at this event. Maybe the magazine article will be released in time for this one, but if not then September’s event could shape up to be very exciting also.

Upminster Death Cafe August 21st

Thursday

Back to work on a Thursday is a way of making sure you have no idea what day of the week it is! As I woke up early, I planned to get to work a bit earlier as I knew I had to meet with a courier who was picking up some samples to be sent to another hospital. I like to have my black coffee and breakfast when I arrive in the morning as a little moment of calm before the crazy. I’ve found this really good chocolate orange coffee I’m a tad addicted to! Once the courier had been, the rest of the team arrived and I was told that there was one post mortem which I would be completing on my own, obviously with some supervision as I am a trainee, but mostly just get on and do it and see how I got along. I’m proud to say that I completed it with only querying one thing and the pathologist told me she was pleased with what I had done. Chuffed to bits with my progression really, I even remembered that she has the organs in blocks unlike the other pathologist who likes them to come out as one whole block. I’m focusing on just persevering when I find things difficult and only asking for help if I find them impossible or I think I’ve done something wrong. I think that’s a good strategy that should work. I also completed the reconstruction and was pleased my stitching is coming along quite nicely, I had got quite fast but the quality of my stitches had worsened, so I’ve gone back to being slower but focusing on the stitches being neat and creating the seal in the skin that is needed.

In the afternoon I once again headed over to our other hospital to cover the time there. It was very noticeable that it was the warmest day of the year! The mortuary there is not in the basement but at the end of the building (there’s windows and natural light in the office and everything!) so it was very warm in there. The fridge room and visitors area there are no windows so they are slightly cooler and good places to be if you don’t want to be in  the heat. The time there was taken up by a family viewing and a few releases to funeral directors. Family viewings or visits are always nerve wracking for me as I never know quite what to expect. I feel like sometimes I worry unnecessarily that people will be rude or horrible and they rarely are. It does happen, but I really shouldn’t fear it as much as I do!

On my way home I noticed some dark smoke in the sky about a mile away from home. A horrible thought hit me- the park was on fire. I peddled so fast down the main road I was out of breath when I got back, I shoved my bike inside and ran upstairs to see out of the window better. Yep, the park was definitely on fire directly opposite our house. A 999 phone call, a walk around the park and some panicking later and the fire was out. The fire crews of The London Fire Brigade really are incredible!

Friday

More samples to be sent off today so it was another early start in the office sipping my coffee waiting for the doorbell. Had to go give a sample of blood myself in Occupational Health as part of when I cut myself while doing a post mortem a few months back. Was given the all clear so far but have to go back once more in October to get the full all clear.

Not as painful (or messy!) as last time

The day was busy all in all, we had a lot of work and I was on my feet most of the day. My feet actually really ache now. I didn’t cycle today because it looked like it might be stormy, so I got the bus. However, looks like I’ve arrived in time to sit indoors and watch the thunder. Perfect Friday evening viewing.

Have a fabulous weekend everyone. I’m off to a cemetery with Laura D on Sunday and I can’t wait!

MG x

P.S. for those interested, brain count currently stands at 38!

Chocolate, Coffins & Cornelius

After the best Death Cafe so far, I had a day off work with big plans. Laura T had bought us tickets to go to Cadbury World for my birthday, and while we were in that part of the country I was eager to visit another place I’d had my eye on for a while.

Cadbury World itself is fabulous and well worth a visit. It was so quiet there apart from a few school groups that we had a bit of a crazy time running about, eating chocolate and taking silly photos of ourselves. In hindsight, among the chocolate shoes, teapots and footballs, I should have asked if they’d make a coffin or a skull. Just a thought!

Just a tad excited to eat all the chocolate!

From there we drove about twenty minutes back into the city to visit an old factory known as Coffin Works. Coffin Works is the original home of the Newman Brothers coffin furniture business founded in 1894. Hidden away down Fleet Street, it’s only noticeable from a distance by the distinct turquoise signage outside. I picked up a leaflet for this place when I visited Abney Park cemetery with Laura D not realising it was in Birmingham but agreeing with myself that I would visit one day.

The factory itself closed in 1998 and shut its doors, but not for good. Those that cared deeply about the history and legacy of the building took great care until the funds were raised to open a museum on the site with many of the original features and fittings still in place.

We arrived not long before two o’clock and were told a tour started in approximately ten minutes so to go and wait in the courtyard until it began. Such a pretty courtyard it is!

Hanging out in the courtyard

Our tour guide is named Cornelius and he himself worked at the factory and knows the machinery there like the back of his hand. He showed us around every nook and cranny, telling us stories about the people who worked there and explaining how each part worked and would have looked originally. Cornelius even got quite emotional when telling us about one of the original staff members and I just wanted to tell him he was the best tour guide I’ve ever had. I think I then did, later on back in the shop and also in their guestbook!

The rather brilliant Cornelius

Please do visit the Coffin Works museum if you find yourself in Birmingham. It’s an hour tour which is rich in history and some heartwarming stories of the people who made coffin furniture (or the tea for those people) for some of the wealthiest and most important people in the country. An absolute bargain at £6 entry and you won’t regret it one bit.

Thank you to Laura T for a fantastic day out, it was incredible!

MG x

July Upminster Death Cafe at The Sweet Rose Cakery

My word what a busy week it’s been! Tuesday saw the third and most exciting Death Cafe that I’ve co-hosted so far. Not only did we peak in numbers of attendees but we also had a local magazine journalist and photographer attend for a feature they are going to run on our Death Cafe! I’m so excited to see what they have put together and I will let you all know once it is available to purchase.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Page

The Sweet Rose Cakery were perfect hosts again, allowing us to take over their premises for the evening and serving beautiful cakes and great drinks. Caroline and Rose are fabulous and even got involved in the discussions which I am so pleased about. I encouraged them to do so if they felt like they wanted to, so I’m really chuffed that they did.

This time we discussed a range of topics including how you would want to be remembered, what would you consider to be a good death and what song do you want played at your funeral. I feel that the conversation was light hearted, witty and warming as it is intended to be, and that everyone left that evening feeling a little bit more comfortable with their own inevitable death even if they didn’t realise it.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Page

If this has peaked your interest, either because you have wanted to come previously and couldn’t make it, or you have considered coming but never been quite sure, then I would encourage you to at least make contact with me and I’ll happily discuss it and your concerns with you! I honestly don’t think you could come along and not enjoy it, or not want to take part. My dear friend Laura T came along this week with no intention of joining in but in no time she was sharing thoughts and stories like everyone else.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Page

Huge thank you to Melissa Page for the photographs taken on the evening and included here. Also cannot thank Rachel, Caroline, Rose, my Mum, Jen and everyone else who has attended so far who without I couldn’t have made it all possible and have the confidence to do this. The date of the next event will be released shortly, and here’s hoping for many more events in future and the success of the Upminster Death Cafe!

MG x

Working with Death, Talking about Death, Listening about Death, Thinking about Death

I found myself yesterday having surrounded myself in death. I realised that I not only went to work at the mortuary as usual but also helped present a talk about end of life care, showed around a student nurse interested in our work, came home and listened to the Griefcast podcast, watched Disney’s Coco with my other half and prepared some Death Cafe materials.

Myself with the lovely Cariad Lloyd who hosts Griefcast, the award winning podcast available for download.

Death is pretty much my life now, and I really couldn’t be happier about it!

This isn’t the post I had planned over the weekend at all. I have been working on what turned into an epically long discussion of the harms of fat shaming in our culture. Every time we have a patient come in who is bariatric, or obese, or heavy, or fat, or whatever term you wish to use, I consider the harm in our society this reflects. Not the fact they have lived that way, but the damage and hurt caused to them by the nature of our fat shaming society. Especially after the recent news articles about mortuaries not being able to store the number of these patients they are receiving. I might still post it once I’ve tidied it up and edited it a bit. Let me know if it’s something you would find interesting and I’ll have a think about it!

Like I say above, I’ve spent Monday so far mainly talking to other people about my work. I assisted with some nurses training which I hope to one day present myself. We teach the nurses for an hour as part of their End of Life training, explaining to them about what the mortuary does and why. The most important part is how their job impacts what we do and what they can do to help us! I think the most discussed point of the sessions I have attended so far is that we ask for all lines and tubes to be left in the patient if they die. The reason for thing being it prevents any leaks or blood from coming out. It’s horrible to see a new patient in the morning who is soaked in blood because an IV line was taken out and not properly bandaged.

The nurse we have with us this week is here for four days. She’s lovely and been asking all the right questions. I really do love showing people my work, I find I can talk about it for as long as they will listen. It’s days like this I remember how lucky I am and how much I appreciate the opportunity I have to do what I do and learn what I learn.

Death Cafe in Upminster on Tuesday 17th July at 7pm at the Sweet Rose Cakery

Hope you all have a great week. Don’t forget that Death Cafe takes place a week today and if you can attend you are so very welcome! There’s tea, coffee, cake, snacks, wine, beer and death chats- what more could you want from a Tuesday evening?

MG x

Beware: Itchy Side Effects

I’ve seen a creepier and crawlier side to my job this week. Possibly the one I’m most fearful of. Do you know what bed bugs look like? I didn’t, but I do now. There are a number of parasites and tiny creatures that call the human body home or food. Some whether dead or alive. This is, no matter how gross, a fact of life and unfortunately one worth discussing. If your skin starts to crawl and itch after reading this I have reached the desired effect because you now feel how I feel, congratulations!

I’ve seen or heard about maggots, head lice and, now, bed bugs so far during my time at the mortuary. Particularly in the recent heatwave, maggots and fly eggs are very common. Flies are incredibly hard workers and can lay eggs very quickly after death. The eggs look like tiny white lines, that then become larger white lines when they hatch into maggots. Maggots feed and then form hard cases to pupate into flies. Sometimes we can see all stages of this cycle on a person when they come in, sometimes just one or two. We have chemicals that kill the eggs or maggots within seconds, they are very potent and smell awful but do a wonderful job. We purchase cans of Raid for the flies and can be seen chasing flies around the room sometimes if one gets free.

Head lice or lice are slow little things that live in hair or on people and feed off blood like fleas. Fleas can jump but lice cannot. They are easily confused but are very different creatures. Head lice are treated the same way in the dead as in the living and a bit of Hedrin or similar will sort them out. The bites can cause itchy rashes and blisters in the living which could get infected and be quite nasty.

Bed bugs are what are currently freaking me out. Like anything, I’ve read up on a lot of different websites and I’m a bit horrified.They are relentless it would seem and can hide away evading discovery. They travel on people but live near where you sleep like under your mattress. Bed bugs mainly bite on arms or shoulder and back of the living, these bites can cause red itchy spots which could also become infected. One thing I noticed was that they become very sluggish in the fridge, but upon removal begin wiggling about. So I very quickly placed them back in the fridge and phoned my manager for advice of what to do!

I’m going to mention that the patients who rarely come in with any of these or any other little creatures will be treated with relevant chemicals and bagged to prevent any escaping or posing a threat to anyone else. We will endeavour to ensure that they are spotted quickly and dealt with. I definitely am still very aware that I have so much more to learn and encounter!! However the theme of the week is definitely bed bugs, the horrible wee beasties that they are.

Brain count is up to 34, it’s been slow going but I’ve now completed two eviscerations without any assistance from anyone which I’m really chuffed with and had some great feedback from the Pathologists I work with. I also forgot to mention that I have some great events lined up that I will be excited to write about and share with you and an idea for a post I’ll begin writing and hopefully have up at the weekend.

Hope you’re having a good and creepy crawly free week so far!

MG x

Things That Go Bump In The Mortuary

One question I get asked a lot is whether I believe in the afterlife. Alongside that is also whether or not I believe in ghosts. I think I oddly find these the hardest questions to answer because of not wanting to offend anyone, which is crazy compared to the other in depth questions I have been asked about my job.

For a long time now I have identified as an atheist. A conclusion that I have come to after years of wondering if religion was to be a part of my life when I was younger and resolutely deciding it was not to be as a teenager. This does not mean, however, that I have anything against people being religious in any capacity and I am actually quite fascinated by the many religions I now encounter through my work. The differences in the way people react, respond and deal with death through their religion is so very interesting. I’ve even asked if I can attend some different ceremonies because I am deeply curious about them.

Being an atheist does mean I don’t think there is any such thing as an afterlife. I find it hard to perceive that we all go to this other place after we die. Although I did rather enjoy The Good Place, that’s a concept I could get behind. Again, I have no issue at all with what anyone else believes in. That’s just my personal perspective. I’m also very open to being proven wrong. A Christian friend once asked me about my belief in the afterlife or if anything happens after you die, I honestly replied saying ‘I don’t think so, but I’m excited to find out’. That’s so very true, if it is how I think it is and nothing happens then that’s that. If it isn’t, wont it be interesting to find out what it is?

Fully recommended if you haven’t yet watched!

Do I believe in ghosts? That’s a hard question to answer again but for a very different reason. I hope I’ve portrayed myself as being quite open minded but logical, and therefore I won’t sound ridiculous when I say that I’m not entirely against the idea of something ghostlike. Maybe. I don’t know that I’m not totally imagining things or just a victim of my own over-active imagination but strange things can happen is all. Outside of work I have been ghost hunting and I didn’t really experience much. One of the mediums on the hunt claimed a ghost was clinging to my leg at one point and it did go cold but I’ll be honest and say that again I was probably just a victim of my imagination at that point. I’ve certainly witnessed some strange things at work that have thrown me slightly but I’m not completely settled either way on what any of that actually is!

I will never pretend to be an authority on ghosts or the afterlife at all, I can’t possibly be! However please feel free to talk to me about this topic at any time because I’m fascinated by how people feel about it.

In other news, the Death Cafe for July has been announced for 17th July 7-9pm at The Sweet Rose Cakery. We had such a blast there last time that we know this next one will be a good one! Feel free to get in contact if you’re curious or would like to come along.

MG x

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