"On entering the waiting area," writes Michelle Williams of her interview to become a mortuary technician, "I saw a woman dressed from head to toe in black gothic clothing with very long curly straw-like red hair, who was one of the other applicants. She greeted me cautiously; I smiled faintly at her and decided to sit on the other side of the room."
The plucky Williams, a former health-care assistant who worked with learning-disabled patients, impulsively decided to take up work in a hospital morgue in Gloucestershire. "Down Among the Dead Men: A Year in the Life of a Mortuary Technician" is a memoir of her first year on the job. Not surprisingly, the scenarios range from ghastly to extremely ghastly. During her first weeks of training, the 36-year-old Williams encounters maggot-eaten bodies, severed limbs and a 560-pound dead man whose cadaver, too large to fit inside a refrigerated compartment, slowly decomposes in the laboratory while technicians wait desperately for the sign-off authorising a postmortem. There's also the motorcycle rider, decapitated in an accident, who arrives on a gurney with his head riding shotgun. Her reaction to such sights is often to murmur a curse and fetch a cup of instant coffee. Williams is a cool customer, and her writing style is correspondingly concise and sportive. More Intelligent Life has extracted a few bits of underworld knowledge from this engaging memoir.
On avoiding mistakes:
Checking the identification on a body—via tags affixed to the big toe and wrist—is a technician's most important responsibility. "Every so often the wrong body gets eviscerated," Williams is told by her supervisors, "and what follows is a tidal wave of trouble."
On how to reassemble a human face after a fatal accident:
"Clive, concentrating very hard for nearly fifty-five minutes without stopping, somehow managed to transform the crunchy flesh pancake that had once been Martin Walker's head into something that was at least vaguely a human face with cranium attached. He did this by packing the skull with cotton gauze, very carefully moulding the facial bones back into something that resembled a normal human face, and closing with some very intricate stitching; Martin Walker was never going to win ten pounds in the Monopoly beauty contest but I could imagine that, in the half-light of the viewing room and behind glass, the relatives would not be upset at what they saw."
Part of a mortuary technician's job involves preparing the deceased for viewings by the next of kin. "Death sometimes has a horrible way of leaving a person looking unpeaceful," Williams write. To ensure that eyes remain closed, she was taught to place tiny pieces of cotton on the eye and then draw the eyelid down over it. Voilà: at peace.
On job qualifications:
After observing a senior pathologist talk animatedly to himself while eviscerating a body, Williams notes that pathologists "are fundamentally mad. Not in a bad way, though, not in the I-am-psychotic-and-I-want-to-kill-you way. They are merely bonkers. Some of them are likable, some of them are a little harder to work with, but they are all firing on less than all cylinders."
On the Coroner's duty:
"The Coroner is effectively a judge—usually a lawyer, although there are some medically qualified Coroners—who has legal jurisdiction over a corpse if no natural cause of death can be given by a suitably qualified doctor. If the medical cause of death is unknown or if there is reason to believe that it may be due to unnatural causes, then the case has to be reported to the Coroner. He then has absolute control over that body—no one, not even the next of kin, can stop him asking a pathologist to do a postmortem and that way found out the reason for the death."
"Down Among the Dead Men: A Year in the Life of a Mortuary Technician" (Soft Skull) by Michelle Williams is out now