My Death Plan

On more than one occasion at Death Café I have been asked a very simple question and this is ‘What are your funeral plans?’. Shamefully I honestly answer that there aren’t any, or at least I haven’t made any complete decisions. I simply haven’t sat down and thought about it yet. When I do think about it for a short while, what I think of as ‘nice’ changes with the days. The most notable change is that some days I think donate everything to whoever needs it, but others I think a nice simple burial in a shroud with loads of bright flowers. Funnily, I never think extravagant or big even though daily I meet funeral directors through work who swear that the only way to go is a horse drawn carriage and the most expensive coffin on the market. However having finished reading The American Way of Death Revisited today I am realising it’s probably not in my nature to want a huge casket and the works.

By writing this, I’m hoping to at least give some form of impression of my final wishes or while typing I might actually arrive some kind of decision. I know exactly what I don’t want. I don’t want a coffin, but if you must then I’ll have cardboard or wicker because wood is an absolute waste. I don’t think I want traditional cremation in all honesty, it uses so much energy but I do quite like the idea of not taking up a plot somewhere and using unnecessary space. In that case, the alkaline hydrolysis which is not yet legal in the UK would be quite good and I hope that I live long enough for this to become legal if I decide that’s what I want. If I do end up as dust, I don’t mind taking up space in the back of a cupboard somewhere while you decide where to scatter me.

Thinking about it, I will put down some ideas here. When the time comes, just pick and choose from the options. I’m cool with all of the below, and besides, I won’t know any of it is happening so do what you want to do, thank you to future person who ends up arranging whatever it may be when I die!

  1. Donate my organs if I die in circumstances allowing. Donate my body to the London School of Anatomy if they will have it. There are a lot of criteria to fulfil, if they are even accepting anyone the week I die which they aren’t always. If none of that can happen, donate the bits I can whether that be eyes, skin, tissue, ligaments etc. or all of the above. Just take what you can! Sadly I know there are a lot of reasons why this may not be an option, but I’m on the organ donor register and quite willing to help the living with any working spare parts.
  2. Whatever’s left, either;
    1. Cremation or alkaline hydrolysis with no official ceremony. Scatter me over the park where I live, currently I’m preferring from the top of the big hill I have struggled to walk/run/cycle up so many times so I can be there forever in glory, and my family/friends will have to walk up it. Somewhere else is that’s not feasible (not just because you don’t want to walk up a big hill), and the hanging out in a cupboard still applies.
    2. Simple burial in a fabric shroud with a ridiculous amount of flowers and flower petals all around me. Natural burial woodland like that at Herongate but not necessarily there if space has run out.
  3. No ceremony somewhere that costs money but have a huge party at my house or someone else’s. I demand a cheap house party.
  4. Remember me with lots of gin and playing ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ by Simple Minds at least once (but preferably several times).

That was surprisingly easy once I’d put my mind to it. Lucky for me, people can read this and reference it should I die at some point. Don’t worry, I have no plans to die in the near future but as a death practical person I also totally accept it will happen one day and possibly sooner than we all think.

My real point with this post was to get you all thinking and starting those conversations with loved ones. It’s totally true that sometimes when these conversations become necessary and in the worst times of our lives they can be the hardest thing to undertake. However, to just let your wishes known one evening over a bottle of wine with your nearest and dearest can be an incredibly freeing and intimate conversation. In true death positive spirit I’m always up for a conversation about death but even if other people would rather talk about anything else on earth, it’s going to happen one day to us all so no harm in preparing for it!

Nothing like a death post to cheer up a grey August Bank Holiday Monday, as always please do get in touch if you would like to ask or discuss anything. Particularly if you have some interesting death plans.

MG x

Terrific Tuesday

What a fabulous start to the week I have had! Between being filmed for a documentary and Death Cafe, I can honestly say I had the best Tuesday for a long time. Those that know me well will know my hatred of that day of the week. Today was calmer but that was some relief, although it came with it’s own unusual events.

We had a student filmmaker come to the mortuary to get some footage for his masters degree work which is a documentary about death. I had little chance to discuss with him what exactly it is about but I could gather that he has interviewed some professionals in the death industry and will overlay their voices with the footage he shot in the mortuary. I don’t expected him to want just general shots of the post-mortem room and the features, but then next minute I was being asked to move bits and bobs around while they filmed! Then there was a lot of pacing about and fridge door opening. I think the film will be shown at some film festivals in the future so keep an eye out for it.

I never quite realised just how much stuff they would bring!

Death Cafe was a lot quieter and more serious than previous events but it was still a resounding success. We discussed a few different topics, particularly how to react and look after a dying friend or relative and also euthanasia. I was particularly keen to discuss the story of Aurelia a 29 year old Dutch woman who was granted to die due to her mental health illness. One thing I love about Death Cafe is the range of emotions expressed in the two hours. We laugh and get close to tears within minutes, we discuss the serious and the silly. There’s space for any question, discussion topic or anecdote. If you are intrigued by what we do, I really cannot recommend coming along just to see what happens. We are a friendly bunch in a gorgeous venue and there’s no pressure to say anything if you just want to listen.

On that note, I’m thinking about trying to do a weekend Death Cafe at some point. Maybe a Sunday afternoon for those who cannot attend the weekday evening time. If you would be interested in this please, please do let me know as only if I get enough interest will I look to do this!

Today I continued to show our new admin assistant the ropes, booking in the new patients and updating the ledger and computer systems. After lunch, we prepped the post-mortem room for tomorrow by laying out the tools we use. Then we had some Porter training happening where they are shown the ins and outs of how their role fits into what we do. The porters are hugely important as they bring patients down from the wards and they can greatly help the smooth running of the mortuary, we couldn’t do what we do without them!

Handsome Rocky in his cat carrier

In other news; I also got sent the PDF of the upcoming magazine article covering the last Death Cafe and I can’t wait for it to be published. This evening I am waiting for a cheeky takeaway after having taken my little guy to the vets for a checkup. It’s been a busy week so far and I can’t wait to go to sleep tonight! If you have any questions or just want to chat, as always please get in touch! Have a great rest of your week.

MG x

Maths, Muscles & Mortuary Visitors

One of the main purposes of this blog is to share my learning experience and I get stupidly excited about the things I can write about. My manager now says to me ‘Something to blog about!’ when pretty much anything of interest happens. Which is often. A few things from this week I think are interesting and I hope you do too.

Firstly, have you ever heard of Terminal Digit Bias? I was writing the organ weights on the whiteboard for the pathologist when I noticed that all the weights that day were even numbers. After a bit of leaning on the scale, we discovered it only gives even numbers. The pathologist pointed out that this is known as Terminal Digit Bias, so I knew that was something I had to research. Turns out, it’s not a commonly found concept, however it has been written about in a few studies relating to blood pressures and population ages. Basically, if you have a bias in your statistics either by rounding to a particular number or grouping numbers, then you have a misrepresentation of your data it can be argued. Obviously, our bias is small because it’s just missing out the odd numbers, however it is still a bias nonetheless!

The maths geeky bit out of the way, I also found out about something known as Compartment Syndrome. The muscles in your legs are made up of different sections, or compartments. This structure is effective in helping you move but also means it allows pressure to build up in these areas when under strain or injury. Through researching this I found that it’s quite common in young people who run or cycle, and I got quite worried about getting cramp while cycling. In order to relieve the pressure in the muscle, long cuts are made to open the tissue up. These can be sealed again once the pressure has gone, either by stitching it back or with a skin graft. According to the information I could find online, Compartment Syndrome isn’t anything to worry about. I find it quite worrying however, especially considering I’d never heard of it but it’s apparently quite common.

We had a few different visitors to the mortuary this week and a new temporary member of staff join to assist with the office work. It was good to see some new people and help answer their questions. We had a couple of training sessions with the nurses that I have been helping present. We also had some people from the lab come and see what happens in the post-mortem room. On top of that we had an external visitor come along to do a day’s work experience observing the processes in the mortuary apart from the post-mortem room. I really do enjoy talking to strangers about what I do, weird because I used to consider myself quite the introvert. I told my friend in discussion recently that I consider myself a recovering introvert (not that there is anything wrong at all with being an introvert) and she quite agreed, in the sense of talking about death I’m certainly something of an extrovert!

I’ve been training the new starter on our computer systems; plus she’s been answering the telephones and the various (there’s four different!) doorbells in the mortuary. She’s done really well so far, and is asking all the right questions. I did have fun when she came back from the front door carrying a large box telling her that the box she just signed for and was carrying did in fact contain a brain that was to be reunited with the owner. She placed it carefully down, looked quite shocked and said ‘I thought it contained stationary!’.

We’ve had fewer deaths than the past few months so it’s given us some time to get other things sorted around the mortuary. I’ve been tasked with updating different documents, and I also take the minutes of the team meetings and type them up for audit. Next week we have some very exciting things happening, not just some more visitors but also it’s Death Cafe on Tuesday.

Hope you have a great weekend and I’ll update again soon. In the meantime if you would like to ask anything about what I’ve written or anything else and would like to get in touch please do! Contact details can be found on here.

MG x

Brains, Books, Bodies & More

Ahhhhh I have so much to tell you all! Be prepared for a complete update summary; possibly quite lengthy and I’m not sure where to begin, so here it goes! The latest Brain Count (the number of brains successfully removed by myself) is at a healthy 42. I’m well on my way to my aim of 50 and pretty chuffed I started counting as recommended by my manager many months ago! I think I’ve got quite good at doing this, and reconstructing the head afterwards. I am careful to not cut through the ear canal when opening the scalp as this can lead to leaking through the ear once reconstructed. I also have been using the other stitch I learnt to complete the head because the skin lies flatter and it cannot be seen so easily. Once the head is reconstructed, we wash the person’s hair with shampoo, comb it and then dry with a hairdryer, probably the closest I will ever come to being a hairdresser! This week I notably experienced my first post-mortem on an organ donor which was an interesting experience. It’s a challenge to work out what has been taken and what remains, a real test on your anatomy knowledge for certain. Plus, you all know organ donation is a huge thing for me that I support wholeheartedly (pun intended) and the news about the Opt-out system coming in for 2019 is absolutely amazing!

You may have seen recently that Laura D and I have now visited six of the Magnificent Seven Victorian cemeteries in London. We have plans to visit the seventh and final one soon, and I will provide a write up of Tower Hamlets individually as well as a full write up of all seven once complete. I’m really excited to share my thoughts on this and some tips if you ever plan on paying any of them a visit. Laura D thinks it would make a good BBC4-style documentary, and while I would love to make something like that one day I’m not so sure the general public would agree.

You may have also seen that in London in October is the Month of the Dead. There are a series of walks, talks and tours taking place throughout London and, as much as I would love to go to them all, not only do some of them clash but also I would not be able to afford food by the end of the month if I did. I completed, however, some stellar work putting together a spreadsheet of those I wanted to attend, filtered out the ones that had sold out and got it down to a final, affordable five. Maybe I will see some of you there, sadly I was too late for the ossuary tours that I really wanted to go on but let me know if you are planning on attending any or were lucky to get tickets for them!

Of late, my podcast consumption has increased but so has the rate of which I am devouring books. This week in particular, I finished The Graveyard Book by Nail Gaiman in less than three days (it’s that good!) and have begun Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death Revisited. The former I was recommended and leant by my Mum who knew I would love it and she wasn’t wrong! The latter I have wanted to read for some time, and expected a bit of a slog but in fact Mitford writes in an incredibly witty and laugh out loud in places kind of way that it’s thoroughly enjoyable. This also led me to read a bit online about the fascinating Mitford Sisters, if you’ve never heard of them I encourage you to do the same.

In addition to all of that and looking ahead still, I not only have my year anniversary of working at the mortuary on the 2nd October but I also have secured a place at the AAPT (Association of Anatomical Pathology Technology) annual conference on the 29th September which is being held in London this year. Once again I’m incredibly excited to hear the different talks, currently I’m most looking forward to a talk about the deaths that occur on the Thames. It will be great to see people from all over the country once again and some familiar faces from over the last year. September happens to be the month of the annual London Podcast Festival coincidentally and I’ve got tickets to see my two death-related favourites Griefcast and Wooden Overcoats live in show which I am very much excited about.

Coming back to the present, don’t forget that the Upminster Death Cafe for August is coming up on the 21st. Rachel and I are once again at The Sweet Rose Cakery to discuss all things death. If you have something you would like to talk about with other people relating to death or dying then please coming along! Or if you would just like to listen to others talk about death then you are very welcome also. More information in the link above.

I’ll leave you (probably quite grateful that I’m done) with a final thought. I don’t know if anyone has noticed but it has occurred to me that I never refer to those in our care as ‘bodies’. Or ‘corpses’. Or, even worse, ‘cadavers’. While I don’t think these are necessarily incorrect terms to use, I also don’t feel comfortable using them in our context of the hospital. I personally prefer to say ‘person’ or ‘patient’ and acknowledge they are still who they were. I’m not against using any terms you want in this sense, I just wouldn’t myself. Does anyone have any thoughts on this? I’d be interested to find out if other people think the same or feel differently to me!

MG x

West Norwood Cemetery

Sunday saw another adventure day for myself and Laura D. We are getting on through the Magnificent Seven and visited our penultimate cemetery; West Norwood. I travelled to parts of South London I have never wandered before, taking full advantage of being that way in order to pay the amazing dinosaurs of Crystal Palace Park a visit with a picnic lunch. Those dinosaurs have been something I’ve wanted to see for about ten years or so but never had a chance to. At least a dozen life-size Victorian model dinosaurs in the middle of a (currently dried up) lake, looming over the people and just a very cool thing to go and see.

Look at them, aren’t they magnificent?

West Norwood itself is currently in Fest Norwood, a ten day arts festival where the local area is celebrated and places open up for the community to wander around. I can honestly say between the atmosphere of the festival and the very friendly pub we had a quick half in before the cemetery I was very impressed with the area! The Friends of West Norwood cemetery had arranged a tour as part of the festival, which proved very popular as around fifty people arrived to go on it! While I was pleased they did not turn anyone away; I was relieved when they split the group into two. There’s nothing worse than going on a tour and not being able to see or hear anything going on.

A mausoleum turned into an office/shop near the entrance of the cemetery

The cemetery itself seems huge. It had a good combination of some of the best bits of the others we have visited. A chequered past, some graves that are falling apart and others that are pristine from renovation. Big looming mausoleums that cannot fail to impress, examples of Victorian funerary symbolism galore and smaller modern gravestones. There’s famous names there too, Mrs. Beeton, Henry Doulton, Henry Tate and John Letts to name but a handful. In case you were wondering, Henry Tate is both responsible for the Tate Gallery and also his company later became Tate & Lyle!

From the side of Henry Tate’s mausoleum- Until the day dawns and the shadows flee away

Mrs Beeton and her husband’s grave

Inscription from the side of Henry Doulton’s mausoleum

The tour was two hours long and covered stories of the famous names or more interesting people there, including Gideon Mantell the medical surgeon who dabbled with palaeontology and helped with the dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park even if he didn’t live to see them created. The tour guide John was incredibly knowledgeable and by all accounts also does tours of two of the other Mangnificent Seven! Laura asked me if I’d like to do something like that, and it popped in my head what a wonderful retirement hobby that would be!

Resting place of Gideon Mantell the Surgeon who loved Palaeontology

Like with all the cemeteries I would recommend a visit, but West Norwood has been one of the most impressive for certain. It’s probably as visibly impressive as Highgate but you are free to wander around. The Greek Cemetery in the cemetery is wonderful, and the winding paths lead to some extraordinary monuments. It is a shame but the catacombs here are currently closed due to safety and urgently needed repairs. While I understand this, I can’t seem to catch a glimpse of a catacomb in this country no matter how hard I try!

From graves looking a little worse for wear…

To beautiful restored mausoleums

I think I will finish on a little thought. It was a very hot day and I understand this can take its toll on people, however I will never understand how people can sit or stand on other people’s graves or monuments. There were a few cases of this on the tour and it made me shudder. While I accept that this is my opinion and please don’t consider me preaching, I do feel that if you visit a cemetery you should show utmost respect for the people there. It saddens me when I saw people leaning on headstones, sitting on the edge of a plinth or standing on top of the plaques. What do you think? Some of you may think it really doesn’t matter and I’d love to hear why!

MG x

Death Makes The News

As you might have seen, what happens to the dead has been quite a hot topic in the news this week. I want to start by saying I am nowhere near an authority on what is being reported or what is being said in return. I’ve seen or read what I have access to, and I completely admit that I have not worked in this job for long enough to know or understand everything.

As far as I do understand, the issues that have been highlighted in some mortuaries in the news reports do exist but have been utterly exaggerated and amplified by the media. I can only discuss what I do know and understand; that the regulations have recently changed dramatically so any notable increase in breaches by institutions appears to be directly relatable to the fact they have become stricter.

In regards to the concerns around institutions releasing the incorrect person to the funeral directors I can only comment from what I know. Our own mortuary, and those I have visited, all have a full ID check in place where at least three different points of information have to match. In other words, we have the name, address, date of birth, date of death and either hospital or coroner’s reference number for each person. Those coming into collect them have to present us with this information and it is cross matched against the information on their wristband. If there are any problems at all with data on wristbands, e.g. mismatching bands, no bands present, then someone who knew the person alive must come and identify them. In the cases of hospital patients this will usually be a nurse who knew them on the ward. Coroner’s (deaths from the community) cases often have a formal identification by a relative.

I am confident from what I have seen there is no justification for the media scandal-type reporting that occurs in regards to mortuaries. One thing the media loves to do is to strike fear into everyone at the drop of a hat and I’m afraid I honestly believe this is the case. There are a lot of people defending and speaking out against the recent reports so please keep an eye out for them.

You may have also noticed that a company called Beyond have been placing advertisements on the tube to some people’s distaste. The aim of these, I believe, is two fold, to make people think about planning their own funerals or cremations, and alongside this to highlight that they don’t have to cost the earth to fund. Two causes I am very much in favour of, I think longtime readers will know I strongly feel that everyone should think a bit more about death, and also the cost of funerals is only becoming (unnecessarily) more and more expensive.

An example of one of the adverts on the tube- what’s so horrific about that?

I don’t feel these adverts should have been banned, because I can’t see how they are any more offensive than IVF adverts to women who can’t conceive or plastic surgery adverts in general. Not everyone will have children or surgically change the way they look, but everyone will die. However, by banning these posters they have become bigger than simply being seen by bored commuters. They are now newsworthy and being discussed on Twitter and other platforms, and even on television. Like in a lot of cases, by banning something you only allow more people to see it.

I’ll leave my thoughts on these here for now, but I’d be happy to discuss further with anyone who is interested or would like to ask me anything. Please get in touch if that’s the case!

MG x

Some links for you!

Telegraph Article NHS mortuaries so lax families are at ‘significant risk’ of burying the wrong bodies, watchdog finds  
Metro Article Do these ‘death adverts’ banned from London Underground go too far?
BBC ArticleFuneral ads banned by TfL over ‘widespread offence’
The Week UK – ‘Offensive’ funeral ads banned from London Underground

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