Magazine article The Spectator

'Past Mortems: Life and Death Behind Mortuary Doors', by Carla Valentine - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Past Mortems: Life and Death Behind Mortuary Doors', by Carla Valentine - Review

Article excerpt

I grew up with a skeleton in the attic. My mother's clinical training bestowed on our family a short man's dry remains, and his residency at home fed the nightmares of my siblings. When I started medical school, he came too, but now as an ally in passing the anatomy exam. On moving house, I stiffened as the taxi driver carried the loosely fastened casket in just one hand. A pavement littered with 200 bones would have been a challenging start in this family-friendly neighbourhood. My accustomed eyes were suddenly anxious to protect others from such a deathly interruption.

Carla Valentine doesn't want her choice of job to sound pathological. 'I held at least one human heart in my hand nearly every single day,' she writes, knowing it seems odd that this is what she had always wanted to do. A morning's work as a mortician might include cutting open an abdomen, syringing the fluid from an eyeball and disemboweling a foetus so that a doctor can establish the cause of death.

This is the science and art of evisceration, not the cosmetics of embalming. The process starts with an opening 'Y' incision (clavicle to breastbone on either side, then straight down to the pelvis). Depending on its freshness, the cadaver may be in rigor mortis or putrefying as the gut's bacteria turn on their host. The risk of blood-borne infection requires a 'demonic dinner lady' uniform of steel-capped Wellingtons, waterproof scrubs, a visor, two pairs of gloves and a hair net.

We live in a time of gore -- on film, in video games and at Halloween -- yet our own decomposition is almost unthinkable. Screening death from view evokes body snatching, the murderous Burke and Hare and the more recent scandals at Alder Hey. Past Mortems reminds us that looking death squarely in the eye has a venerable history, from the Egyptians to the Victorians. Valentine identifies with the 'death-positive' movement, which wants to tackle the mortuary's image problem. No longer is this a vocation suited to a 'mad-scientist's assistant named Igor'. 'Tiny and blonde with a huge pair of silver rib shears', Valentine has made the female APT (anatomical pathological technician) something of a type: red lipstick, coquettish smile and an eye for taxidermy. She blogs at 'The Chick and the Dead', and runs a dating website for 'death professionals' called Dead Meet. …

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