What’s it really like working in a mortuary?

A person caring for someone who has died.

Aaron Thackray and Neil Wilford run our beautiful mortuary here at Poppy’s. Mortuary work can be shrouded in secrecy, but we believe that openness should be normal. In this interview, Aaron and Neil share their thoughts on gentle death care, the challenges of Covid-19, and why Neil was once invited to give talks on death during bingo.

What exactly does your work involve?

Neil

We plan all the logistics for funerals on the day. When we collect somebody, we bring them back here to the mortuary. We'll measure the person so we're ready to order a coffin for the family meeting. We make sure they're clean and put Vaseline on their lips to keep them from getting dry. If the person is in a body bag we’ll remove it unless there are infection precautions which mean we can’t. If they’re wearing a hospital gown we’ll take it off and wrap them in calico.

We’ll periodically check on the person too, especially if they've been brought into our care with more physical changes to their body. So we’ll look after them when they arrive, but it is an ongoing process.

Aaron

It’s satisfying to get someone looking nice and back to some sort of normality. The other day we collected someone from their home where there had been an awful situation for the family. We just walked in there and said, ‘let's help you.’ Such simple things make a big difference to people, like letting them know they can come put makeup on their mum or saying that we'll cut her nails.

What's it like working with people who have died who are beginning to physically change?

Aaron

It's strange to start off with, but I found it becomes normal very quickly. Once you've seen someone in a bad way then it sets a level. Anyone else that you see is just normal.

Neil

And someone who’s in a worse condition is only a little bit worse, so it doesn't seem that bad. They might be dead, but they were a person who was alive and they need respect.

What do you think people do not understand about working in a mortuary and with the dead?

Aaron

They just go to all the movie stuff, thinking it's completely grim.

Neil

I've invited my housemates to come to the cemetery and see how lovely it is, but they haven’t. Neither of them has ever seen a dead body and they don't like to think about death full stop. I’ve tried to talk to them and say ‘you know, you'd be surprised what you actually get from doing this work.’ It’s interesting, it's rewarding, the families can be really great.

Aaron

The pinnacle of it is when you're collecting someone who has died at home, with their family there with you. You're in this bubble where you can't describe the emotions — just the intensity of it. It really puts you on level as to what's important in life.

Why do you think it's important to care for the dead gently and thoughtfully?

Aaron

If I got to a point where I didn't care then I wouldn't do the job, I wouldn't be doing it justice. You're still dealing with people, regardless of whether they're dead or alive. You need to show compassion.

Neil

You're also dealing with families that are distraught sometimes. The way that we collect people who have died is very different to a lot of other funeral directors. Lots of funeral directors won’t let family members remain in the room with someone who has died. But you need to do whatever you can to help.

Also, remember that you're looking after a real person. You need to make sure that they get the best send off they can possibly have.

Has your work changed since the beginning of Covid-19?

Aaron

There was initially a fair bit of pressure because there were suddenly a lot of people who had died of Covid-19. We started off with five or six people immediately, so it was a bit of a flood. That was a tricky time, but now we have a clear and concise plan so it's easier.

You have to put thought into it, for everyone's safety. There's been more operational issues than anything because we need a lot more PPE, but the core of what we do hasn’t changed.

Neil

We're actually doing more than the government has recommended, though we can still mostly carry on as normal. When someone has died of Covid-19, we welcome our clients to visit the person who has died in the actual mortuary rather than the family and friends' room now — just to keep them safe. We prepare the families so they know what they will experience and let them know that there are fridges and coffins they might see.

Has doing this job changed how you feel about death and dying?

Aaron

Before working here I was just going to have a cremation. Now, my plan is definitely burial in a natural burial ground. I didn't know anything about them before I started, but going out on funerals and seeing how lovely they are made me think it's definitely where I want to end up.

Neil

No, I don't think so. I've seen a lot of death since I was very young and I've got quite used to it over the years. But I do constantly battle with my friends to try and talk about death. They don’t understand why I do this job, it's very strange to them.

On the flipside, I used to go to a bingo night that my mate ran and he would drag me up onto the stage every Monday night for a ten minute chat about death. Everyone was quite fascinated, you had the audience asking questions to find out what I'd been doing that day. It was great. I just wish I could get my friends to come down here and look around and see how normal it is.

Why do you do open mortuary tours for groups like hospice nurses?

Aaron

It takes away the smoke and mirrors. If you say ‘that's the mortuary but you can't go inside,’ people will automatically think 'what are you doing in there?' Instead, you can bring someone in and just show them — it normalises things.

For some of the nurses, it's also a continuation because if we've got someone from a hospice they’ll sometimes recognise them. They'll say, ‘oh, that's John,’ and start talking to them. Then the nurses get them ready and dress them and put them in their coffin. It's a really nice thing. Ninety-nine percent of the time everyone enjoys learning what we do.

Check our Events & Talks page for more behind-the-scenes Q&As and open days. For the moment, we're holding virtual events like this video tour of our mortuary.

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