Tuesday, 22 January 2019
Slicing With Death
Past Mortems -
Life and Death Behind Mortuary Doors
(aka The Chick And The Dead)
by Carla Valentine
Past Mortems is a book I saw whizzing by as a retweet on my Twitter feed one day and I thought it looked really interesting. Luckily, a very good friend bought me a copy for Christmas and I am indebted to her because it’s one of those rare books which is as educational as it is entertaining. In the US the book goes by Valentine’s handle of The Chick And The Dead but... I don’t think much of their cover and nor their title, it has to be said. The charmingly understated pun of the UK title is much more palatable to me and I absolutely love the illustrations and the placement of bits of information in these bounding spaces on the back cover on this one too. Also, the writer is British and her experience is mostly... erm... experienced within the UK so, yeah, I much prefer the Past Mortems variation of the book, to be sure.
This is kind of an autobiographic memoir of a young lady, Carla Valentine, who has spent her life doing various jobs working alongside the dead in various mortuaries and hospitals, including some big emergency jobs in temporary headquarters working alongside other professionals, such as the 2005 London bombings. I have to say that, while the book jumps about a bit (there’s a reason for that, I think... I’ll get to it in a minute) the quality of the information given, coupled with a humorous and engaging writing style, will certainly leave you with a grin on your face. Even as you are wading through the brains and entrails with her as she details a lot about, not just a mortician’s job but also the history behind the modern state of various practices of ‘anatomical slicery uppery’, so to speak.
The book starts off with a kind of prologue where Miss. Valentine talks about her childhood experience with the burial of a cat and how she had always wanted to work with, and was fascinated by, dead bodies. We then jump to somewhere in her first couple of weeks on one of her jobs as she makes her very first Y-incision and, along with various cinematic references (clearly another one of her fascinations) she won me over straight away with the following sentence...
“I wasn’t sure what ‘bladder holding’ etiquette was, so I pinched it between thumb and forefinger and held it at arm’s length, as I transported it to the steel bench, just like a disapproving mother with a teenage boy’s dirty sock.”
And from then on I knew I was in good hands as she darts about in a whirlwind of entertaining data from various stages of her life at different jobs and then back to childhood... and then back out again. It did, it has to be said, take me a while to keep up with the constant scenario/time changes but, after a while, I realised (with the handy helper of chapter titles) that she was exploring different aspects of death thematically and so, rather than a chronology of her life, we have a kind of guide through the different aspects of death, in some ways. And it’s fascinating stuff...
For instance, she unearths many historical facts to get us up to speed on various things such as the reason we have mortuaries in the first place. Apparently, before the mid 1800s, dead bodies were left with the families until burial and, since a lot of people could only afford to live in one room, families would spend a fair amount of time with the rotting corpses of their recently deceased loved ones for company. Quite apart from anything else about that, of course, the fact is that this is just not a healthy environment for the people left behind who, in some cases, would soon follow the dead due to illness from being in such close proximity to the decaying family members... leading to a famous quote about ‘the dead killing the living’, I believe. Hence the necessity for and birth of what we now know as ‘the mortuary’ (not a morgue, apparently... as you’ll read within the reasoning behind one of Ms. Valentine’s pet peeves).
Another interesting fact I learned was how jewellery found on an incoming body is catalogued. Instead of gold ring, silver ring, diamond and emerald, for example... it’s yellow metal, white metal, white stone and green stone. This is specifically so that incorrect identification doesn’t lead to them being sued by family members of the desceased if they incorrectly identified the composition of a trinket and the family think they have stolen something of value. Which makes perfect sense in this ‘sue everyone for everything’ world we are currently living in, I guess. I actually learned a lot from this one, including some stuff about body snatchers... or resurrectionists men... and their operations in respect to the laws of the time which was a real eye opener compared to what I thought I knew.
And her adventures aren’t just all to do with the slicing and dicing of the dead. For example, she tells of a period of a month or two where she was in consultation for authentication on a movie set... where she couldn’t do much about the sets already built but she was able, among other things, to make people aware that they needed to change the way a prop body was built due to mortician's not opening up a head in the manner the writers/director had imagined. She also talks a little critically about the ‘strained’ behaviour from the actors on the set and I found it interesting that she never once mentioned the title of the film in question but was happy to mention the odd actor or two. So it quickly became obvious to me that the film she’d been asked to consult on was the set of The Autopsy Of Jane Doe (reviewed by me here) , which is kinda interesting but makes perfect sense as, apart from anything else, Valentine makes it clear that she likes to watch horror movies.
I’m also happy to say that she makes a load of corny old jokes, such as parodying Groucho Marx with her line... ‘Space can be at a premium in mortuary fridges - it’s popular real estate; people are dying to get in there after all...” And she’ll talk about famous anatomists of former times by comparing them to modern movie stars such as Mel Gibson and Ryan Gosling (I’m not going to tell you why... read the damn book!). Also, the culture shock when she moved to London and found the prolific use of the ‘C’ word when she stresses that, back where she came from, it was treated in the same manner as the name Voldemort... a word never to be spoken aloud.
Surprisingly, for a book so humorously written, there’s also a lot of drama to be found in some of the incidents that have made up her journey with the dead to date... and I admire her for giving up on all the mental clogs at one point and just going to live in a convent for a while to reflect on things. However, through it all, you never get a feeling that there’s any disrespect towards the deceased... quite the opposite, in fact. This is a book written by someone who is, somewhat, obsessed with her profession (in the best sense) and loves it but also deeply empathises with both the living and the dead and does her best to help people of both states in their time with her.
Past Mortems is a phenomenally cool and extremely entertaining novel which might make a few readers somewhat queasy in that its fairly graphic... it certainly made me a little uncomfortable about certain things I didn’t realise were done during an autopsy that will have me questioning if I’d want a loved one of mine put through the same treatment... but I can’t do anything else but recommend this book because it sheds light on something which isn’t too often shared and, also, busts some myths about what really goes on, created by various media over the years. Plus, you know, it’s a really fun read. Also... I’m not going to tell you what a Sour Toe Cocktail is but... if you want to find out, read this excellent book. I hope she writes another one sometime soon.
You can visit Carla Valentine’s website and buy her book here... https://thechickandthedead.com/