Why visit a mortuary?

Poppy's CEO Clare Montagu outside our mortuary space in Lambeth cemetery

Four minute read

Poppy’s CEO Clare Montagu issues an unusual invitation — to come and visit our mortuary.

“Come and visit our mortuary” is probably not the kind of invitation you receive every day. But at Poppy’s we are always thrilled to welcome people into the space where we care for the dead.

Talking about death

The Poppy’s team are frequently out and about in our community. We talk about what we do and the importance of great death care with healthcare professionals, faith leaders, death doulas and others who work with people at the end of their lives.

Find out about the groups we work with and how to request a talk.

Every time, I am struck by how even those who are experts in caring for the dying, know very little about what happens after death.

When I worked in a hospice, we were rightly proud of the outstanding care we gave our patients and their families in the last months, weeks and days of their lives. But once the person died, we withdrew.

That wasn’t wrong the person was now in the care of a funeral director.

However, I don’t think we gave much thought to the issues around care of the dead the surprising lack of regulation and quality standards in the funeral sector, for example. Or much thought about what great death care could look like.

Staff from Trinity hospice in Poppy's mortuary
Staff from Royal Trinity hospice, one of the groups who have had talks and tours from Poppy's

What happens at Poppy’s

Now, I’m on the other side. So, when I talk to groups about our work, I’m keen to share the insights I’ve learnt at Poppy’s about how we can care well for people who are dead. Especially as it’s unlikely they will hear this anywhere else.

So what do I tell them? First of all, that our approach is gentle, natural and personal.

This means keeping people cool and clean with minimal intervention; avoiding invasive procedures such as embalming and suturing which are rarely necessary; and using natural materials, such as calico, rather than plastics, to wrap people.

There shouldn’t be anything radical or unusual about any of this. It should be normal to treat people with dignity and respect once they’ve died. And, at Poppy’s, it is.

There’s something else you’ll notice about Poppy’s. We think about the words we say and how we say them. We avoid euphemisms. We use the name of the person who has died, rather than impersonal terms like ‘the deceased’. We talk to you with care and compassion, but without hushed tones or sombre voices.

Why visit a mortuary?

Death is normal. It’s natural. It shouldn’t be hidden behind closed doors. Yet caring for the dead is often shrouded in secrecy and silence. This makes it difficult to know whether the people we love are being cared for with respect and compassion.

I wonder what image comes into your mind when you think of a mortuary? It’s more likely to come from TV dramas than real life, as few of us have ever set foot in one.

It’s true that, too often, mortuaries are located in basements with no natural light. They’re grim clinical spaces, filled with chemicals. They are even hidden to those who work in the same building. They are not places you would want to spend time in.

Everything about most mortuaries reinforces the sense that a dead body is something to fear.

It’s no wonder that even those who expertly and compassionately care for the dying, haven’t had the opportunity to think about care for the dead. The vast majority of us prefer not to think about it at all.

Poppy Mardall lining a coffin with calico
Lining a coffin with calico

Poppy’s mortuary isn’t like most mortuaries

It’s not just that the surroundings are different natural light, high ceilings, more comfortable than clinical, while maintaining the highest standards of hygiene.

The biggest difference is how integrated the mortuary is into everything we do at Poppy’s. It’s a two minute walk from our office space.

We know exactly where you dad, your gran, your child whoever we are looking after for you is. We can pop over and see them. We can wash them, dress them, put on their favourite nail polish or aftershave, or tuck them in their favourite blanket if you ask us to.

We can personally welcome you into our adjacent friends and family room, where you can visit your person privately. You can bring in food, drink, candles, music, art materials, whatever you choose. One of our recent clients described it as being like someone’s front room a space you can relax in.

See inside the mortuary in Poppy's introductory video.

This kind of invitation shouldn’t be unusual

Coming to the Poppy’s mortuary brings our great death care to life. We hope you’ll be able to join us at a future open day.

If you come, we hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised. That it will raise your expectations of what great death care is and how to access it. That’s what happened to Gilly. After first visiting us as a hospice nurse, years later she trusted us to care for and arrange the funeral of her husband. Read her blog here.

This kind of invitation shouldn’t be unusual. It should be normal for all of us to know what happens in a mortuary, and to expect open and transparent care, both for the dead and for those they’ve left behind.

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