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  • Writer's pictureClaire Sandys

Seeing my first dead body

To listen to me reading this blog instead, the My Why podcast episode is available here.

Well, if that’s not a title that grabs people, nothing will!

I never imagined I’d be writing a blog on this, and some of you might be asking, why am I?

Well, I’ll explain. On The Silent Why we’re exploring 101 different types of loss (not just bereavements), and for Loss 43 of 101 we interviewed two Funeral Directors from Wales about working with loss, in the form of death, on a day-to-day basis. And I thoroughly recommend checking that episode out for a great insight into their jobs and the toll it takes. When I was chatting to them after we finished recording, they said they’re very happy for people to see round their offices and find out more about what they do. This got me thinking, and so I approached them to see if I could come for a couple of days ‘work experience’ at their Funeral Director basecamp to experience what it was like. And they said ‘yes’. So I took along a slightly reluctant (at first) husband, and we drove for just over three hours to Llandudno in North Wales (where I quickly found out the Welsh pronounce it Cclan-did-no).

Now, many of you might be echoing my mother and other people I told about this trip and be shouting - ‘Why?! Why would you want to do that?!’ And I get it. It’s probably an acquired taste, but doing a podcast where I chat to a lot of people who have to visit Funeral Directors and organise funerals, I thought it was a good opportunity for me to experience what many of our guests do. I’ve been in a funeral parlour before, getting photos for a marketing company I worked for, but other than that, I haven’t had much to do with them really. Although I have met quite a few Funeral Directors this year because I started working as a funeral verger at our local church, which involves opening the church, handing out orders of service, and being a point of contact during the funeral and then closing up after, and through this I meet the local funeral directors organising the funeral. I’ve found them fascinating to chat to, so I thought why not use this opportunity to get a closer view of what they do.

One of my main motivations was that hosting a podcast on grief and loss, it felt like a rite of passage somehow to at least have seen a dead body. I’ve not lived close enough to any family members to be there when they die and most of the funerals I’ve been to weren’t people where that would have been something that presented itself as an option . Over in the UK, a traditional British funeral rarely ever involves an open coffin situation, in fact in the 28 ish funerals I’ve been to, I’ve never seen or heard of one here.

The other weird thing that struck me, was that a little while ago someone asked me if I’d ever seen a dead person? And I had to pause and think before I said ‘no’. I found that very curious. It struck me as bizarre, almost. Why did I need to think about that answer? Surely it’s not something you’d ever forget? The more I thought about it, the more I realised why I had to pause and think. Firstly, I’m someone that immerses themselves quite heavily in TV, books and films, experiencing them as if I were there at times, so although I’ve never seen a body, I’ve been in fictional situations with them thousands of times. I love watching TV crime and police documentaries, plus things like Silent Witness (where they’re dissecting (fake) bodies). I’ve imagined myself in the scenario many times, walking into a room behind the police, stumbling across a body in an empty house, we’ve all watched stuff like this. Plus, I’ve also worked in a hospital in the Operating Theatre department, so I’ve seen through the glass windows in the doors all kinds of unconscious humans being cut open to operate on, or I’ve passed through Intensive Care where unconscious people are fighting for life. I’ve visited people that are really ill, even over the last weekend I sat next to someone as close to death as we can get when we live into old age, and watched, with tears, a life that is ready to end. I also worked in a veterinary practice and was often questioning a vet over an unconscious dog or cat that was being operated on (or a poor bunny mid castration. I saw and handled a lot of dead animals. I’ve been on farms and seen dead cows, pigs, etc. So I’ve seen humans and animals in a lot of different situations, and that’s why it took me a moment of pausing, but no, I’d never seen a human after they had died. I’d never see what’s left when the life, the essence as it were, has left.

So this felt like something I needed to have witnessed when hosting a grief podcast that so often deals with death. I also wanted to put myself in situations many of my guests have faced to empathise with their experiences, and I also just wanted to see how I would react really. I couldn’t imagine it being shocking, but I wanted to find out for sure, I was very curious. What is it like to see the shell of a human after the life has departed?

Well, now I have seen the body after a person’s soul has left, and I thought I’d (sensitively) share with you what it was like.

After all, as Epictetus put it:

You are a little soul carrying around a corpse. Epictetus

To protect the identity of anyone I saw I’ll be referring to them as ‘they’, but even that could be confusing now, so I want to also point out this wasn’t because they were non-binary, it’s just the easiest way to not give away their gender.

So, on our first tour of the Funeral Home, the first thing I actually saw related to dead people was the top of some dead heads. I’ll explain.

After we’d met the Funeral Directors in person (because of course, we knew two of them from the podcast but only via a video conversation), and met the other person that works there (again I’m not going to name names as it’s not the point of this blog), but I will say they were all the most lovely, warming people, and we felt very safe with whatever we would encounter while with them. So, after we’d chatted we got the grand tour and we were allowed into a door that was locked with a keypad.

This room had quite a loud humming noise which was coming from a very big, very expensive looking, fridge. It’s more like a small room really, with two thick looking doors on the front and one of those air conditioning type units attached to the side. On the outside is a whiteboard on each door with the names of those inside. Once we’d been told about what the room was used for and what the giant humming fridge was, although there was nothing else it could really be when you knew what kind of business they conduct there, we were asked if we were ok if they opened the door, so we could see inside. We said we were fine and to carry on, and the fridge door was opened...

And that’s when we saw the top of the dead heads.

Now, they weren’t just heads of course, although sadly that does happen, but because the bodies were lying with the top of their heads towards the door, all you can really see at this point is the very top of the head of the person lying on the sliding tray.

Each door on the fridge can have a maximum of four people behind it. When you open one of the fridge doors, inside are sliding trays, one above the other, that pull out towards you through the door, and this is where people are stored before their funeral. Even just using that terminology felt weird, are they still people, or are they just bodies now? I think some of them were covered in a sheet but I do remember seeing a thick head of grey hair and thinking ‘Huh. That person is dead.’ It was a bit weird and surreal but I didn’t find it in any way shocking, frightening or upsetting.

And this was the first time I was struck by how much of my response to things was a reaction as if people might be alive. It felt weird to shut people in a small room like that, and that’s when you had to remind yourself that these people were no longer alive. It didn’t matter. All fears, reactions, needs and responses were gone, it was the end of the line - or maybe even that bit just beyond the end of the line.

Later that day, one of the Funeral Directors had a call to collect a body from a nearby hospital morgue and asked if we wanted to go with him. Keen to be involved as much as we could and not turn down an experience, we said yes. So we got in the vehicle that’s equipped for such things. Here's Chris sitting in the back (before we collected the body):

Large, shiny, black, vehicles are a big part of funeral life.

On arrival, we removed the trolley stretcher thing from the car (a bit like the ones they use in ambulances where the wheels drop down when it comes out of the back, and fold up when it goes back in), then we went in through a very grubby-looking backdoor and a helpful staff member guided us to the person we were collecting. The person was wrapped in a white sheet and once again I found myself wanting to react as if they were alive, which would be to take the sheet off their face. I was surprised how many of my initial reactions were guided by this assumption that people were still alive in some way.

Chris and I then helped move the person onto the trolley stretcher, and making sure no one was watching outside, we put them in the back of the car/van, next to where Chris was sitting. Then we headed back to base and I was wondering what exactly you’d say to the police if you were involved in a car accident right now.

Side note: apparently anyone can move a dead body in their car, so long as it’s covered over, it’s not against the law.

Anyway, once we got back, the funeral director we were with asked if we were ok if he unwrapped the body to do a couple of things. We said ‘yes’. And there we were, faced with our first dead person outside of the fridge.

It’s weird because I felt a little nervous about the situation, but largely because of the reactions of others when mentioning that I was going to do this. I didn’t feel any fear in myself at the idea, but when you say that you’re going to a funeral home specifically with the aim of seeing your first dead body, and people respond with mild horror, it does make you wonder if you should feel more fear or upset. Having said that, every one I’d spoken to that had seen dead bodies, mostly medical friends and family, had described it with interest, not one had described it with anything close to fear or horror. The repeating phrase was just that you could tell - there was an emptiness, like something was gone, it was no longer a person, just a shell.

My curiosity, and pure fascination, was the driving force in this moment. I mean, I didn’t want to get really close and touch them or anything, but there was something very surreal about the situation that sort of made me almost want to sit with it a while and process what was before me.

I instantly knew what people had meant when they spoke about there being something missing. People often talk about cremation or burial as a ‘which is the best case scenario if you’re accidentally still alive’, but there was no mistaking this person for someone that was alive. And although I didn’t see it, there is so much that the body starts to do after death, and so much prep, that you start to realise how ridiculous those common opinions are. Not to mention insulting to all the medical and funeral professionals that deal with the body beforehand. I was also acutely aware of standing in the presence of something huge, strong, and bigger than me, something no one could control - death.

Looking at the body before me the thing that struck me the most was the lack of breath. I realised I hadn’t seen someone without their chest moving before. There was no breath going in or out, and it’s not something I’d ever thought about - until it wasn’t happening.

What I was conscious about, was something definitely influenced by watching too much TV - an uneasy sense of ‘What if they suddenly take a huge breath in and sit up?!’ Now, that was a scary thought. Not like this older person I was looking at would be much of a fight for the three of us, but the idea of that kind of surprise was something I noticed I was a little wary of. Completely irrational - but then aren’t most fears?

I thought about why I had even considered that waking up was an option, it seemed such a stupid thing to think and I certainly wasn’t going to say ‘is there any chance that they might wake up?!’ because I knew the answer. And that scenario is the sort of thing that’s baked into a TV programmes or films with the desire to scare, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it wasn’t really anything to do with that, but more to do with the expectation that when you see someone that’s dead, it’s just hard to believe that that’s it, and you sort of assume on some level that it can’t be right, and maybe they’ll just start to breath again, because that’s what we mostly see and experience in life. We see ill people get better, we see unconscious people wake up, we see Marvel films where they find a way to bring back the dead. For most of us, the real, proper finality of death doesn’t feature in our lives very often. I mean, it happens around us every day in some ways, and we hear about it often, or experience the impact of it, but we don’t actually see it much, in the flesh. Especially in the UK. In some countries death is a physical part of daily life, whether through the impact of war, famine, poverty or just traditions of open-caskets or sitting with bodies. So whereas some people will know what it’s like to see death and know it’s the end, we don’t really.

Our experience with dead bodies didn’t end there, because during one of the crematorium funerals we were shown around behind the scenes of the crematorium. First, we got to see one of the crematorium staff ‘charge a coffin’, which is the term used when a coffin is pushed into the cremator. There’s quite an art to this as it’s vital the coffin goes in dead straight (excuse the pun!) and quickly (because when that door opens you really start to feel the true heat of that inferno and fear for your eyebrows!). There are machines that do it, but where we were a man pushed it in by hand, hard and fast. There was also another cremation in progress while we were there and we were asked if we wanted to look through the small, circular window into the cremator to watch some of the process. I definitely did, again there was a sort of fascination about this.

The window into the cremator is around 3-4 inches in diameter I suppose, just big enough for staff to be able to assess that everything is going as it should. Each cremator is not a lot bigger than the width of the coffin (and due to the increased size of people now they even had a cremator specifically for larger coffins - the average coffin is around 22 inches wide, but they now have to make them up to 40 inches wide), the inside is made of stone/bricks/cement with vents/holes for the fire and air or whatever is pushed in (please excuse my lack of technical terms) and it’s obviously incredibly hot - somewhere up near 800-900 degrees Celsius. So from a distance through the small window you can just see the vibrant oranges, yellows and reds of intense fire behind the door. However, on closer inspection, depending on what stage the cremation is at, you would see more of what was going on inside. I believe they said the average body takes around two hours to cremate, and it seems the coffin burns up pretty quickly so what you see afterwards is the human remains as they burn. At the point I looked through the window it was still possible to see the bones, and I remember seeing ribs and a leg bone. It sounds a bit gory but I didn’t feel any repulsion by it, nothing gross about it, it was almost like watching something on a screen because you were looking through glass - except it wasn’t, because you knew it was a real human body being consumed. It was just thoroughly interesting and we had a long chat with the man that worked there about the filtration systems they use to control emissions, the challenges that come with an increasingly obese population (whereas most organs, tissues etc just burn up in the fire, fat melts, and that can become a problem for them when there’s a lot of it), we also spoke about why ashes look and feel so much smaller than people expect and it’s because effectively you’re left with the bones as ash, most of the other bits are consumed by the fire, and that it’s impossible to cremate more than one coffin (so any silly rumours that they put people in together just aren’t founded). Overall it was eye-opening and fascinating. The most disturbing thing I heard was him talking about having to get inside the cremator once to fix something on the back of the cremator door, which meant shutting the door while he was in there. That freaked me out more than anything else I saw!

Now I’m aware that my experience was very safe and clinical compared to many, and I know that seeing death comes in many different forms which will depend on the person seeing the body, the person that died, how they died, what age they were, what the circumstances were etc. For someone else, some of what we saw might be scarring in some way, for others it’s the tip of what they’ve experienced and will seem like almost nothing. Seeing an old person that has died will not be the same as seeing a child. Seeing a natural death will not be the same as a suicide or murder. But something struck me in chatting to those that work around death, at the end of the day a body is a body, once you’ve seen every kind of death, the human form (in whatever way life was removed from it) is just that and there’s not much that bothers them about the actual dead body any more. However, the circumstances around the death - well that seems to be a different story. These are what seem to continue to leave their mark, scar, or haunt those in the industry; the deaths that were preventable, the deaths of those that were far too young, the parents that didn’t want to let go of their child after he/she died, the sadness of someone extinguishing their own life, the separation of a long married couple, the child left without any parents - it’s not seeing the body in these situations that makes them difficult, it’s not even the death in a weird way, it’s the impact of the death, the age of the death, the circumstances and bigger story around the death.

Hearing the stories and experiences of staff at every place we visited there was something else that stood out to me as a recurring theme, and it’s another subject we don’t like to talk about and maybe shy away from, just like death. It’s something that is a cause of death in our world, and is seen as a preventable one in many ways. Obesity. Chris and I were both struck by how the funeral business is having to cater on all fronts to find ways to accommodate larger bodies, which causes stress on the system, the equipment, and the physical moving and storing of them. And this is something our world is having to cater and adjust to more and more, I’ve seen it in the medical world too.

Hunger and obesity are two examples of preventable deaths that our world faces in huge numbers. And yet in a weird way, to talk about this almost feels more taboo than other preventable deaths like suicides, or murders. I once heard a Veterinary Rep say that vets are nervous to tell owners that their pet is overweight, when the owner also is, despite it putting the pet’s life at risk, because they don’t want to offend anyone.

I am fortunate to live in a country where children aren’t dying every 10 seconds from starvation like they are in some countries, and according to The World Counts website,

Around 9 million people die every year of hunger and hunger-related diseases. This is more than from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

But I do live in a country where obesity is starting to cause similar stats.

Ironically, there are about as many obese people in the world as there are people who suffer from hunger. Globally, 822 million people suffer from undernourishment while about 800 million are obese. The problem of obesity has literally reached epidemic proportions. To add to the tragedy of hunger, one third of all food in the world is wasted.

So I came away from my time around death with some even bigger questions on life, society and humans. How have we got to the point of over 2 million tons of food being wasted nearly every day, obesity killing over 2 million people a year, and children dying of starvation every 10 seconds?

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with at least 2.8 million people dying each year as a result of being overweight or obese.

It was weird but after my time with the funeral industry, I didn’t come away with just an experience of seeing death up close, I came away with lots of other thoughts too. Like how self-sacrificial, kind and enjoyable-to-be-around the people are that work in this industry, a sadness that they don’t just cater for death, but so many sad, horrifying, unnecessary deaths and situations they face, and also I had questions about whether we, as a human race, have lost our way when it comes to having respect and reverence for the preciousness of the one life and one body we get.

Does hiding away death in society play a part in this? If more people saw death, and how fragile life and our bodies are, would we make different decisions, regardless of education, government, addiction, loneliness, wealth, poverty and all the things that help dictate our choices in the West?

I don’t know, but they were some of many thoughts I’ve had since.

After I was finished writing this blog I asked husband, Chris, how he would describe his experience with seeing his first dead body. This was how the conversation went:

Chris: ‘It was less smiley than I thought.’

Me: ‘Smiley?!’

Chris: ‘Yes, people talk about going to see their loved ones and them being all serene and looking like they’re sleeping, or almost smiling. Not all like…’ [at this point he threw his head back, opened his mouth and pulled a terrifying face!]

Now, this was a huge exaggeration (we didn’t see that!), but it did make me laugh, and I knew what he meant. Most of us, if we see death at all, will see it after the Funeral Guys have done their magic with your loved one. The reality of the people they collect is very different. So a big shout out again to all those dealing with bodies and presenting us with a version of death that we can appreciate, recognise and draw close to. Thank you!

Overall I would say, I’d love the takeaway to be this - you feel that invisible stuff that you’re drawing into your lungs right now? And the way your body pushes it out again automatically? That means you're alive. Your heart is pumping blood around every single second to keep you alive and doing whatever you’re doing now - so be kind to it, don’t make it work too hard or make it give up too early). Life is amazing. It’s all you have really.

I am grateful for being alive today. It is my joy and pleasure to live another wonderful day. Louise Hay

But one day it will be gone, your heart will stop, your lungs will cease and your time here will have finished. The world will continue to move on, people will be born, more people will die, you will hopefully have some people around you that mourn the loss, but when they die your legacy will start to fade (unless you’re some sort of Einstein!). But that’s ok. That’s life. It doesn’t matter what you believe, what you say, what you choose, who you love, who you don’t, it happens to all of us eventually. So appreciate it, enjoy it, find ways to make your heart sing while it can, do the things you love, hug people, eat marzipan (not too much, Claire!), enjoy nature, chat to others, find something you love to do with your day, look for tiny glimmers around you that make your soul sore, lower your expectations, release the pressure on yourself, accept what hasn’t gone right in your life and find new things to find hope in.

It’s all a choice of course, it’s up to you. So what are you going to choose to do today?

I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn't arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I'm going to be happy in it. Groucho Marx

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