You Can Escape Life, But It’s Hard To Escape Death

I had a lovely holiday and a pretty perfect week away from everything apart from the fact I couldn’t tear myself away completely from Twitter. Turns out not knowing what political drama is befalling the UK is worse than knowing it at the moment, however I have reached a point where I can not despair entirely and at least see the funny side to some extent. Yes it’s awful, but I have accepted I have no control over just how awful this mess is going to turn out.

In other news, Lanzarote is beautiful. It’s perfect for a place to forget about life for a while and temporarily adopt a couple of cats. I think I was in my element there, sitting about reading some great books while sipping on the PG friendly named Love on the Beach cocktails and not at all getting a tan worth mentioning because my paler than pale skin simply doesn’t tan and that’s that.

My adopted cats for the week

I made it through I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara in about two days, I really couldn’t put it down. It is the gripping story of her search for a serial killer who raped and killed numerous women in California in the 1970s and 1980s, the whole thing pieced together from partial book chapters and articles after Michelle died in 2016. The last part of the book is written by two of the investigators who carried on the search after her death, and you might remember that last year they actually found him and he was arrested under DNA evidence. It’s a great book, which jumps around a bit but has to be given a huge amount of license to do so considering the nature of how it came together and how it was not written in the whole by one author.

I also read I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell which is a series of short stories describing seventeen brushes with death in her life. It made me think of the few times I’ve felt like I’ve nearly died and is a good read. After that I read Under the Knife by Arnold van de Laar, a really fascinating book looking at a huge range of surgical procedures and how they came about, developing in to what we do today. I found the chapter on prothesis and knee replacements really interesting as I know my Nan had one before the change in practice in the early 2000s and one after that, meaning for the first she was bedridden and rested for a good while after and the second she was up and about fairly quickly. I feel I have to discuss with her when I next see her what she felt was better! My non-death related read was supposed to be The Summer Book by Tove Jannson, the Finnish creator of the Moomins who I adore. I can’t avoid death. This book is largely about the relationship between a curious young girl who’s mother has died, and her aging Grandma. Within the first few pages of the book she asks her Grandma when she will die and all in all it is a beautiful story of a summer on an island exploring life through themes of understanding death and other people. Oh and there is a chapter about a cat. It’s like she wrote that book for me, honestly.

We met some really nice people on our travels, both the locals and the other tourists were all friendly. To start with, Ryanair flights now seem to be like your first day at school because they make you pay to have the seats you book next to each other, and hardly anyone does. So inevitably you end up with one or two people next to you who you’ve never met before. Friendly people chat, not so friendly people plug in earphones. On the flight over I had a really nice woman on the left of me and another on the other side who seemed to ask to move quite quickly and left a seat empty. We could only surmise that the latter was not chatty and didn’t like the idea of two chatterboxes next to her for four hours, which was fine for us because we spread out and had a good old chat. The woman I was chatting to worked in the NHS in mental health care and we soon got into discussing our jobs and which was the hardest (we both thought each others seemed harder), she explained how people are sectioned or held under the Mental Health Act to me and I explained the post mortem process to her. If anyone could overhear us I honestly think they would have wondered what on earth was happening but it was a great flight! No such luck on the plane home, I had two silent ones either side so I read my book and got into an argument with the attendant about a chicken salad sandwich I had paid for but didn’t receive until two hours later.

Two further things I would like to mention that seem relevant. One day we hired a motorbike and did a lap of Lanzarote exploring the sights and the roads. I wanted to go to the Cactus Garden because why not, not really knowing what to expect other than a whole bunch of cacti. The place is amazing, with all kinds of cacti in all shapes and sizes. When I say sizes, there were cacti there taller than most trees which standing next to I could not help pretend to be in the scene from Coco with the giant papaya and cactus dreamt up by Frida Kahlo for her show.

Frida cactus and the Cactus Garden of Cesar Manrique

Secondly, one night we caught up with some television from back home and caught the episode from the new series of Derry Girls where a relative dies and they all have the wake at her house with the body in an open coffin the room. There is a scene where they all crowd around the coffin and the ‘wee English fella’ James gets very freaked out by the fact they are all just standing around a dead body while all the girls just stand there thinking he’s being weird. It’s a very awesome nod to the huge differences between the death practices here in England and in Ireland/Northern Ireland. Certainly something I would love to explore in the future if given the chance, maybe exploring the difference between England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland!  

The wee English fella isn’t very comfortable with death it would seem

Normal service shall now resume on here and Twitter, those who follow me on Instagram know that I never stopped on there just carried on posting annoying photos of cats and food. If you don’t already follow me on social media, I can be found @mortuarygem and as always if you would like to get in touch please don’t hesitate.

MG x

Introducing The Beautiful Natural Burial Woodland at Herongate Before I Disappear

And I’m done! My self-imposed assignment deadline achieved, they are all complete in draft waiting for review when I get back from my break. Work is done for a week and a half. As of tomorrow I’m not checking my emails or messages, I’m avoiding Twitter and Facebook too. We all need a break every now and then, and I’ve finally accepted that my time is now.

How else would you think I would relax other than under a blanket and surrounded by cats

Before I go, please remember the next Upminster Death Cafe is on the 16th April at the usual time of 7-9pm at the gorgeous Sweet Rose Cakery. Also, put in your diaries the Dying Matters Awareness week in May from the 13th-19th. I’ve got a few things I’m planning or involved in that week I’m very excited to announce soon.

13th-19th May Dying Matters Awareness Week

April 16th Upminster Death Cafe

The last thing from me for now is I’d like to show you some lovely photos I took on a recent visit to Herongate Natural Burial Woodland. The woodland is in the making, with lots of juvenile trees planted and plants sprouting. I loved so many things about it, the major one being the fact it is so peaceful. By having strict rules around what can be on a grave, the team there are cultivating a perfect place for those wanting to avoid the fuss and grandeur of a more traditional burial site. In it’s simplicity, it is a beautiful and more spiritual place to me than any other cemetery I’ve visited. If you are nearby, I can thoroughly recommend having a little wander.

The Office

The Lake

An Individual Grave

Trees planted and the woodland forming

I can’t wait to visit over the coming years and see this place grow into a stunning site

Please still feel free to message me or email me while I’m away on my break but don’t expect a reply before the 8th April!

MG x

Announcements, Goodbye Daisy & Some Thoughts

I have a cold. I’ve tried hard to ignore it but my cough is actually exhausting now. My poor immune system has really taken a battering this year, I’m feeling so very run down but that’s not my announcement. I would like to warn you all now that I will be scheduling in some Mortuary Gem downtime coming up starting the 28th March and ending 8th April where I’ll be back and firing on all cylinders hopefully. It’s not that I need time away as such, but I do feel the need to remove myself completely for a short while for my mental and physical health. I will spend that time mostly reading books for pleasure which I haven’t done in a long time!

The first on my my reading list!

It’s been a calm week in the mortuary so far, but a busy one otherwise. We had our March Upminster Death Cafe yesterday which we muddled through with my cough, Rachel’s sinusitis and me forgetting the crucial name stickers I always use! It was quiet as a lot of people are unwell or busy at the moment, but I think we had some of the most poignant discussions we’ve had in a long time talking over the topics of the recent violent crimes around our local area and the suicides in the media of high profile individuals.

Goodbye Daisy

We also discussed a book that was shown to us by our regular attendee Becky. The book is called Goodbye Daisy and is to help children and children with learning disabilities process the death of a friend. It’s a wonderful book that can be purchased here, I can thoroughly recommend it as it really made me think about some new perspectives on dealing with death. I also love the fact Daisy loved glitter and I’d chosen to wear my glitter boots that day. It was better than coincidence! Our next Death Cafe is the 16th April, please get in contact if you are interested in attending.

Daisy loved glitter so would have loved my boots!

My final thought for my midweek catch up is suicide. There’s been some events and media coverage recently that has really got me thinking about it. I would just like to say that there are always people who can help, even when you think you might be completely alone. There is always hope, even when you feel utterly hopeless, and there are always other options even when you feel like you have none. Please share and use organisations like the Samaritans and Mind who are there to help and solely exist for that purpose. You are not and never are a burden to them. Take care of yourself and those around you because you really cannot know what people are going through in their own minds. Please be kind.

MG x

How Splenunculus!

Doesn’t it sound like something completely amazing and fabulous. I think I will refer to anything wonderful from now on as splenunculus! It’s actually a little thing that the human body can do, where the spleen doesn’t form in the usual way and creates a little tiny accessory spleen. That little guy is called a splenunculus. Cool right?

A tiny accessory spleen, or splenunculus if you will

Another crazy busy week spent filled with anxiety about not getting enough done while actually doing an awful lot. On Tuesday I attended a talk with Laura T where Dame Sue Black was interviewed about her life as a forensic anthropologist and about her book. It was a fascinating talk which I enjoyed, even if I don’t always agree with her opinions on certain aspects. I can’t lie, her book I had borrowed from Laura D and has been on a huge pile I’ve mentally noted as ‘to read at some point or another’. I now have my own copy which I can place there so at least I can give it back!

Terrible lighting and a poor attempt at an arty photograph

It was my turn in the post mortem room this week, most notably was the day that I spent asking people if they could smell poo on me. Sometimes certain smells, no matter how much you scrub, just won’t come off. Luckily no one actually said they could smell it, so it would appear it was one of those times the smell has just kind of got stuck in my nose (for want of a better term!) and I could smell it only myself. At the same time, I had quite a difficult evisceration to complete but gave my best shot at doing the three block technique and the pathologist seemed quite impressed. I then mistook a rather large spleen for a liver later on and I think she stopped being impressed with me at all.

Outside of that I’ve been cracking on with my assignments for my course, sneaking a bit of typing or reading whenever I can. I’m aiming to have them all at least in rough draft soon so I can feel a bit more chilled about it all and focus on some revision for the exam in May.

As part of my Health &. Safety assignment my camera roll has been filled with amazing photos like this one of a fire extinguisher

Rockstar the cat was back at the vets this week, he had to have four of his teeth removed as he’s an old little chap and they had rotted. That all happened a day after I had a visit to another East London hospital to find out that I have to have my four wisdom teeth removed in May. I’m not really happy about the fact I’ll be having my first very general anaesthetic too. Not very splenunculus at all.

Post-teeth removal Rockstar cheekily lying on all my reading material for the evening

Next Tuesday is the March Upminster Death Cafe which I hope will be a good one. Have a lot of people who have been in touch. The April and May dates have been confirmed which is great too. I was hoping to be involved in a project called Departure Lounge which is upcoming in May and June but sadly I can’t make the training dates. However I have just been asked to do a talk to some junior doctors about evisceration in September which is very exciting!

Death Cafe is next Tuesday!

That’s all from me for now, hope you have a splenunculus weekend!

MG x

So You’re Dead… Were You Prepared?

I think one of the biggest things I seem to metaphorically bang my head against the wall about is the fact people have no idea what to do when someone dies. Culture appears to have, for the last several decades, really tried to put people off discussing death. Especially with our nearest and dearest. In very simple terms, this means as and when people do die, those left behind are very much left at the mercy of those in the business and trust them to do the right thing. But what is the ‘right’ thing that needs to happen? Well in reality there is no right thing, there is only what people truly want and often this is not what happens.

In the past, undertakers have been very good at recommending what should happen to us after we die. They sell plans aplenty to the ageing population and service the bereaved left with the task of arranging funerals for their loved ones. The problem I have with this is two fold, they sell plans that often are not quite as clear and straightforward as they seem and they are selling funerals to people at one of the most vulnerable times of their lives. I am in no way saying that all undertakers are money grabbing vultures, but they have become very good at making a lot of money out of their businesses that’s for certain. I do see a lot of very honest people working in the profession too, newer businesses starting up with clear and simple upfront prices that don’t bamboozle the grief stricken.

There really is only one way of combatting this and that is to arm ourselves with the knowledge we need to make an informed decision. The best time to do this is well before we are in a position to have to make it, well before the emotions involved may take the wheel and steer us in a direction we wouldn’t normally choose. Haste is not something you would want to have when deciding something very important like this.

Personally I think just having a think about what you wouldn’t want is a start. Would you rather be buried or cremated? Would you like neither? Do you even know what other options there are? Do you want flowers or think they’re a waste of money? Would you like people to wear a certain colour other than the standard black? Do you know what your family would want? What they could afford once you are gone?

It’s a matter with so many involving factors it’s something that needs to be discussed. One thing I think is the least helpful is something I have witnessed a few times at work when a deceased loved one has told their next of kin ‘I want as little fuss as possible and as little as possible spent’. This rules out the expensive but easy funeral director route and leaves a lot of people scratching their heads. The issues here is, it can be done for very little when done yourself but do you really want to be finding out how at that stressful time or know well in advance what needs to occur to make it happen. I hate to say I told you so, but the death anxiety in our culture has made this so very hard and it’s only damaging ourselves.

If I have one piece of advice it’s to do some research. Have a think about it. Approach the conversation with someone close to you. I promise you this can only be a help for a time when you either can’t or don’t want to do it.

MG x

Things I Learnt In Hartlepool (Part 1 of 5)

As I mentioned before, my training requires me to go to Hartlepool five times this year to study for my Diploma. The last three days I have spent in the North-East having a lovely time, learning lots and meeting some great people. Here’s a quick update of where I’m at as my train speeds it’s way back to London.

Getting a group of people together who work in mortuaries is like giving us all a licence to talk. It’s a bizarre thing to witness, discussing mortuary work in fairly hushed voices in a pub like some secret society. However, we got slightly louder when discussing the course and then more trainees joined us after hearing our conversation and realising we were on it too. So then the hushed conversation became bigger but still hushed nonetheless! It’s not as though we ever discuss anything we shouldn’t, but we’re not sure how people would react listening to us discuss was protective equipment we use or how many post-mortems we’ve completed!

In that vein, it is a strange thing but it cannot be denied that every mortuary seems to do something very different to somewhere else. Our dinner on the second night consisted of eight of us from all over the UK (fairly widespread), comparing everything from our equipment, to team sizes, to tools used, to how our department fits in with the hospital or wherever it may be based. Turns out this is a discussion that can go on for some time, with so many differences it seems strange and a bit baffling.

Hartlepool itself is lovely, even if I’ve only really seen the Marina area. Our first evening there it was really sunny and warm which was nice, the other days it’s been a bit more grey but not raining which seemed good. One thing we were advised to do was to give the Monkey a visit. The full back history of the Hartlepool Monkey can be found here, but the basic story is that it’s thought in the Napoleonic Wars some locals mistakenly thought a shipwrecked monkey was a French sailor and he was hanged. A bit along the marina from our hotel is a bronze monkey hanging out by a lock with a bowl to throw money into. One of our course facilitators told us to do this and it ensures that we will pass, so of course we obliged!

The Hartlepool Monkey Just hanging out by a lock

So what did I actually learn while studying? A fairly in depth exploration of Health and Safety in the mortuary and an introduction to Microbiology which nearly made my head explode. My poor cell anatomy knowledge was really put to shame finding out that a lot of cells are a lot more than cytoplasm and nuclei. Therefore I discovered I have a lot of work to put in before I’m back there in May, got three assignments to be getting on with, a portfolio to build and an exam to study for. Feeling slightly overwhelmed is an understatement but I’ll get there. I threw money to the Monkey after all.

MG x

Platform 9 3/4

Or actually Platform 8, but I can dream that I’m finally aboard the Hogwarts Express and not a Grand Central train about to depart for Sunderland swinging by Hartlepool on the way.

It’s actually happening. I’m off on my first of five trips up North to begin learning and training for my qualification. I’m going to learn the ins and outs of being an APT with a whole bunch of other cool people doing the same thing. Plus I bagged a window seat which makes this trip even better. The train is warm and stuffy, but the sun is shining and my sunglasses are in reach at least which is good because I think once we’ve pulled out of the station the sun will be directly in my eyes. After note, I wasn’t wrong about that.

All-Weather Gemma (my alter-ego) is always prepared

I had a good start to this week, I had a busy day on Monday in the post-mortem room and felt good about my skills leading up to today. Then yesterday I had a great day, performed two eviscerations and then assisted the pathologist and felt like I was so happy with where I am at right now. The brain count is up to 78, surpassing my 75 milestone that I was aiming for and already made a start towards 100. The skills I want to try and improve in the post-mortem room going forward are to perfect the three block technique because I tend to not be able to get the organs out correctly when I attempt this.

On a personal level, I’ve had a noticeable improvement since the first two weeks of the year where I had a panic attack followed by a bout of gastroenteritis. I’ve been having some counselling sessions and focusing on small achievable goals with the ‘Counsellor Man’ as I’ve been referring to him as. We discussed how nervous I was about this trip today, turns out in my classic way I’m more nervous about this journey, the hotel and the people I meet along the way than I am about the actual studying. I don’t want to sound arrogant, I’m a natural Ravenclaw and study is my strongpoint.

I am looking forward to beginning and understanding a bit more about what this course entails. I’ve got a few bits and bobs to keep me busy while I’m on the train, a few emails and things to read plus a catch up of a couple of tv shows. I just finished Umbrella Academy this morning annoyingly but I might have to rewatch it at some point.

For now, I’ll post again when I’m on my way back and I’ll be working on my next ‘So You’re Dead…’ post too. I also just misplaced my favourite pen and I’m stuck in a window seat surrounded by passengers. This could be a long journey after all.

MG x

So You’re Dead… Now What?

I thought this week I would discuss a bit about the different stages of death, or what happens after we die. Most people will have heard of rigor mortis and know that this is a stiffening of the body, but you might not know that there are other stages and aspects to death that the body goes through. Here’s my whistle stop tour of some of them and what happens in each one!

Now what happens?

Obviously, death occurs when the body stops functioning as it should. This can be classed as either a brain stem death, or a cardiac arrest, or respiratory arrest. In order to be alive you need those three to be working together so you can breathe and pump blood around. Hence why life support machines provide these functions for you if necessary. People clearly can and do die in a number of ways but ultimately they all cease to have a functioning brain, heart and lungs in whichever order.

Immediately after death four things occur in the body which signify the changes occurring. These are known as the familiar rigor mortis, alongside pallor mortis, algor mortis and livor mortis. After these processes the processes of decomposition follow which I’m sure you all know too. In case you need reminding Wikipedia states that this is “accompanied by a strong, unpleasant odour”. While decomposition is interesting and something I find fascinating, it’s the subtler four initial stages that are also really quite interesting.

I’ll just say here that this is a super simplified version and there are many other things that can happen to the body depending on the situation or condition it is in. Also, there is not an easy timeline for these changes which again depends on the condition or situation of the body, which further supports the need for research and human taphonomic facilities (body farms). These can be proven to occur at set times but they overlap and coincide with each other. For want of a better term, when these things occur is complicated with many factors to consider and for now I will leave it at that.

It’s complicated and difficult to predict but can be generalised fairly easily

Dead people have some traits you would easily recognise and be familiar with. I think if you were to describe one you would most likely use these words, ‘pale, cold and stiff’ and you would largely be correct. Firstly, the paleness is from the process of pallor mortis where the colour from the skin fades within two hours of death. I think dead people often look waxy too, although also sometimes people simply don’t have this at all and look pretty much asleep! This of course depends on the pigment in your skin and darker skin tones have less paleness occur.

The coldness is mostly from our fridges at work but a bit like a forgotten cup of tea, with nothing sustaining the body’s heat it sinks to the same as it’s surroundings, so without a fridge this would be the ambient room temperature thanks to algor mortis.

As you probably know the stiffness is the rigor mortis where the muscles have chemical changes that cause them to tighten. They are not impossible to move and you can often ‘break’ the rigor mortis simple by moving the arm or leg slowly but firmly. Once broken it won’t return and it does eventually leave the body to become floppy again. Rigor mortis can set in within four hours and stay for around two days or so but maybe longer.

The other stage mentioned above is the livor mortis which is subtle in some ways but also the most visible in most cases. In this process the blood in the body, no longer being pumped around by the heart, comes under the influence of gravity and sinks to the lowest point. Generally, with people lying on their backs this means to their posterior so the back of the head, chest, abdomen and legs. If the person was face down then this would sink to their anterior or front and if, for a strange example, the person was standing up somehow it would sink to their feet, ankles and legs. It is visible by a purple hue to the skin, sometimes very dark and sometimes just a hint.

It’s these stages that we see from our hospital patients who reside in or mortuary. My manager has instilled in me the knowledge to know the simple things, like if a patient isn’t laying with their head slightly raised and facing directly upwards the discolouration can show in their face and be not very nice for families coming to view. Also, until this stage where the blood has settled, removing any lines from drips or intravenous medicine from their skin can cause them to bleed uncontrollably thanks to the lack of clotting. We also use aspects of rigor mortis, for example closing a patients mouth before this has set in will ensure it is closed for family viewings and the patient looks peaceful. It’s these small things that I’ve learnt so far like this that I try not to take for granted because they are small but so important to our work.

If you have any questions about these things please get in touch, I might know or I can always try and find out!

MG x

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

If you speak to me, or see me recently you have probably heard me say I’m tired, or thought I look rough. Truth is, I feel it! Between mystery pain and insomnia, my brain is in overdrive and it’s a really busy time of year in the death industry. I’m really proud of my team and of being a part of it this week. We’ve pulled together through some tough situations, just got on with it when we’ve been pushed to our limits and all our strength is gone. When I say strength, although you might think mental I actually mean both mental and physical. There’s been moments when my arms just don’t want to do what I need them to.

What a lot of people don’t realise is, mortuary work is very physical especially when it’s busy. You might find yourself cleaning, moving patients around or just running about trying to keep on top of phones ringing, doorbells going off and people being released to funeral directors. When I quite Archaeology I didn’t think a physical job would be part of my life again, because it felt like most jobs now are office based. Sometimes I now get time to sit at a desk and those times I relish, whereas previously the prospect of a desk job really did not appeal to me whatsoever.

In the hospital world, there is what is known as ‘Winter Pressures’. The wards feel it with meetings about beds and spaces, the emergency areas feel it with huge increases in footfall through their doors and the mortuaries feel it with constant new patients and community members arriving. It’s slightly different every year, in that the issues caused by this are different but largely space related. The other difference is that the time of year when it is at it’s worst is never predictable. It can coincide with dips in weather and temperature but it can also appear to be utterly random.

A lot goes on, some I’m aware of and some I’m sure I’m not, behind the scenes to ensure we are best prepared for these times and can cope in one way or another. It may mean just using our extra storage. It might mean transferring people to our surplus storage in an external company. The worst I’ve seen in my time at the mortuary is a concern that places are getting very full, and that even extra storage is not enough. However, there are plans, upon plans, upon plans to ensure that there is always a way to cope. This doesn’t make it any less stressful for those involved but it should calm any concerns from the public who might believe there is a problem.

February Death Cafe is coming up soon!

I do wonder if I’ll ever get used to this time of year, and not find it completely tiring. The lack of sunlight doesn’t help me and drains energy. I’m hoping for sunnier, calmer days ahead. Looking ahead, it’s not long now before I head up North to start my training officially! However, before then we have our February Death Cafe coming up on the 19th at our usual lovely venue at the usual time. Hope you can make it!

MG x

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