Morgue Memories


The Morgue

  One night,about five or six years ago, I walked into my office, turned on the light and on my desk was a human arm, a right one in fact, just laying there, wrapped in a red biohazard bag. Imagine my surprise. Inquiry as to how this ended up on my desk, instead of the morgue proved fruitless, I had to put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and figure out what happened. 

   Seems that the arm, recently separated from its owner due to a grisly car accident, was left in my charge, because no one knew what to do with it. Well, that’s why I make the big bucks, so I called the pathologist, asked him what he wanted done with this appendage, preserved it in formalin, placed it in the morgue, end of story. 

  Except it wasn’t. The end that is.  In the same period of time, I had been involved in a long, LONG argument with my boss Millie about staffing.  I produced all the necessary statistical proof to show the increase in workload vs. the decrease in staff.  Millie has a gift for ignoring the obvious; I like to call it administrative obtuseness. “but I don’t see how your numbers warrant another full-time employee.” I heard this refrain over and over again. 

  Those who know me, even a little bit, know I have what might be called an offbeat sense of humor.  I had what I thought was an inspired idea.  I took out my cell phone, snapped a photo of that right arm, and sent it in an email to Millie with the caption “Thanks for giving us a hand”. 

  Needless to say, she was not amused.  

  I’ve worked in a lot of hospitals, but never one where the lab and morgue are adjacent to each other. Usually the morgue is in the basement, far away from any other department. I used to imagine a morgue attendant, sort of gnome like creature, like a benevolent Orc from Lord of the Rings. 

  The morgue is not only a temporary storage for patients who have died in the hospital, it’s also the place where autopsies are conducted.  

  When I first started, I thought it was kind of weird. I remember walking into the morgue at 6 AM and finding the chief pathologist, my Supreme Boss, slicing open a corpse. My Boss, Dr. Bill (he’s got a long German name and I am still unsure of the spelling even after 20 years), is a tall, thin stoop shouldered man,  with ears the size of dessert plates and a nose that kind of resembles a question mark, and thick glasses and unruly, not quite clean brown hair. He kind of looks like Ichabod Crane on a bad day.

  Dr. Bill loved to do autopsies. Watching him work was sheer entertainment. He would flash that big knife around with gusto, and he was an artist. Most pathologists had an assistant to do the heavy lifting and dissections. Not Dr. Bill.  He knew just what he needed to do to get the information he needed. Plus there was a steady stream of exclamations, “Holy shit would you look at that liver! Or “Fuck me, its amazing that heart kept this guy alive for as long as it did.” Or “Holy cow, look at the size of that…(fill in the blank)”.The guy loved his work. And if you could get over the gruesome aspect of an autopsy, there was a lot to learn and see.

  One of my duties as Lab Supervisor is to do a physical count of the deceased in the morgue, including verification of identifiers (hospital medical record numbers, date of birth, etc). 

  I know you’re dying to know why, so I will not leave you in suspense any longer.

  Once upon a time long ago, there was a case of corpses being mislabeled and misplaced. Corpse Grandpa Joe was in the locker designated for Corpse Aunt Helen (I don’t know the real names, I just thought I’d have some fun). Somehow the labels got switched as well. 

  Unfortunately this was only discovered after the funeral home came around to collect Grandpa Joe for the services that were supposed to happen the following day. When the mortician unwrapped the body to begin preparation for the funeral, the mistake was revealed. Instead of Grandpa Joe, there was Aunt Helen, staring up at the poor guy. 

  Seems that Grandpa Joe ended up in the hands of the Neptune Society. Talk about a worst case scenario. Big time.

   The Society’s speciality is low cost cremation. This happens when the family can’t afford a big funeral or doesn’t want a formal ceremony.  So for about 800 bucks, the Neptune Society will cremate your family member and you get back the cremains in a plain wooden box, about the size of your average shoebox. It’s then up to you to do the disposal? This is a great service as far as I’m concerned, like if you want to throw your loved one off a bridge or into the ocean or anywhere you want. The world is your resting place. The possibilities are endless.

  Unfortunately, as you might have guessed, Grandpa Joe had already been incinerated and the cremains on the way to the family of Aunt Helen. All this time, no one thought to check identification.  It’s kind of a little more serious than say getting served the wrong entrée at a restaurant. 

  Grandpa Joe’s family was expecting a nicely made up corpse, suitable for a 2 day viewing and funeral service. Instead they got nothing.  Finally when the mix up was revealed, and Aunt Helen’s family was contacted, Grandpa Joe was reunited with his family and they were able to have a service. Not the elaborate one that was planned mind you, I mean ashes are ashes, not much to see at the scheduled viewings. Still Grandpa Joe’s family rallied and produced some decent Polaroids as a last minute substitute, they were a little creased, but serviceable.

  Corpse Aunt Helen finally went to the Neptune Society and from what I understand, her ashes were placed in the fountain at Lincoln Center. Seems that Aunt Helen was quite an opera fan. Or maybe it was Grandpa Joe? We’ll never know for sure. 

  I realize the aspect of having the morgue right next door to the place where you work might be considered to be grim to some. And I suppose it is. I had some employees who wouldn’t go near the door for the morgue, even if there was something in there they needed. We keep certain stock materials in one of the small rooms off the main autopsy theater. 

  I never saw it as grim.  It was a way station for corpses. It was a place where questions were answered, medical mysteries were more clearly understood, maybe the knowledge gained can help the next patient with a similar disease process. 

  Seeing what I did brought death to a more pedestrian level at least for me. It helped me overcome the fear attached to death. It took the exalted unknown out of it and I became familiar with it, maybe a little intimate. No secrets here. 

  And for me, that was the best lesson to learn.

About Susan Popper

An animal lover, a medical technologist a person trying to live a full creative life.
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1 Response to Morgue Memories

  1. maria Wulf says:

    I’m sitting outside on the front porch, and laughed loudly when I read about the photo you sent to your boss. Fate even looked up to see what was going on. Great story.


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