Let’s open up our mortuaries to the public

Poppy Mardall preparing a coffin

What springs to mind when you hear the word ‘mortuary’? Probably somewhere grim, mysterious, and cold. There’s no denying that mortuary spaces often leave a lot to be desired. But it doesn’t have to be that way — in fact, it shouldn’t be the norm at all.

Instead, imagine a mortuary that is also a place of kindness, somewhere that friends and family could come together and grieve. Yes, death would be present, but there would be the opportunity to confront it on your own terms.

All this would take is for the funeral sector to be more imaginative about set-up, design and even language. Hospices have already shown that it’s possible to have inviting public spaces connected with death. Why shouldn’t we have the same high standards for the funeral sector?

But some funeral directors and embalmers argue that this just isn’t possible — or even desirable. There’s the sense that friends and family members need to be protected from the reality of death. Not only is this a lost opportunity for grieving people, it also sets the stage for bad practice behind closed doors.

Marie Curie Hampstead Hospice garden
Marie Curie Hampstead Hospice garden

Openness helps to end abuse

Right now, there’s a vicious circle that happens in the funeral sector. Because the public doesn’t visit mortuaries, there’s no incentive to make them better — and because mortuaries aren’t set-up for the public, funeral directors are reluctant to let them in.

This means that mortuaries can become spaces where death care isn’t at its best. While we’ve seen some brilliant examples of mortuary practices, we’ve also come across shocking examples of neglect.

For example, we’ve seen dead strangers laid out on the same mortuary tray. We’ve also heard incredibly disrespectful language like ‘we’ve got a big one’ or ‘we’ve got a smelly one.’ This isn’t how most of us would want our friends and family treated, and shouldn’t be the standard of care.

In a sector theoretically focused on dignity, this kind of bad practice looks a lot like hypocrisy. Encouraging the public to visit and learn would go a long way towards making things better. Not only would it open up conversations and dissolve taboos, it would also help to remove some of the fear surrounding death.

The mortuary at Poppy's
The mortuary at Poppy's

What does a beautiful mortuary look like?

While setting up our own mortuary, we made the conscious decision to create a welcoming space for families to visit. Not only is there a private friends and family room, the mortuary itself is open for them to see if they choose.

It’s true that there are coffins, fridges and trolleys, just as there are in other mortuaries. But it’s also open and filled with light — not to mention the wonderful members of our team who are there to walk people through what they can expect.

It’s important to make sure that the mortuary is well-aerated so it smells fresh. We take a gentle natural approach rather than embalming which helps prevent any chemical odor. Natural materials like wood can also soften the look and create a calming atmosphere.

Ideally, mortuaries should be spaces to honour our complex feelings about death. They shouldn’t be closed-off clinical places that we only know from police dramas off the telly. It’s up to the funeral sector to ask more of ourselves and reimagine what a mortuary can represent. And the very first step is opening up our doors to let in the light.

Looking for more thought-provoking pieces? Don't miss 'exploitation is rife in death care - here's what needs to change' and 'why we need to talk about death'.

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