Reconstructing Faces in Eastbourne

Last Friday the 8th June, my manager and I rushed out of work at the end of the day from the mortuary and bundled into my little yellow car. I plugged Eastbourne District General Hospital into Google Maps and off we set on a nearly two hour journey towards the south coast. We were not in for an evening of fish and chips or seaside fun but for something far more exciting. We were attending the AAPT South East Regional Event which was a Suturing and Cosmetic Application workshop.

I wasn’t certain exactly what we had in store for us when we were done travelling. I was singing along with Magic FM while pondering what we might get up to. I had images of suturing up fruit like oranges or bananas in my head but really I wasn’t sure.

Upon our arrival at the mortuary in Eastbourne we were greeted with friendly smiles, some familiar faces and trays of Subway sandwiches which were very welcome after a two hour drive and having eaten nothing since lunch about 6 hours previous. After some time chatting with the other attendees we headed off to change into scrubs and get into the post-mortem room for the workshop.

Ben from Dodge was hosting the event and had laid out some of his different products and tools that he uses in his work. There were several sizeable cases of equipment around, and two post-mortem tables with a covered up ‘lump’ in the middle. We first were shown a slideshow with a few videos and pictures of the products we would be using. In effect, they are a powder and a liquid that are mixed to produce a paste or putty depending on consistency. This can then be used to fill or recreate parts of the body with a spatula or your own hands. In order to keep it pliable and clean, another liquid called Dry Wash is used and a brush is used to ‘feather’ the substance into the surrounding area and blend it in. We use Dry Wash at the mortuary currently but to kill any maggots or destroy any fly eggs on the people we receive from outside. Lastly the powder is applied to the top of the area and the product is allowed to set into a latex like texture.

Pigments, brushes, tools and cosmetics

After the presentation we were divided into two groups and each group shown to one of the post-mortem tables. The lumps on the tables were revealed to be lifesize plastic model heads with a series of injuries including missing ear lobes, lips, lacerations to the nose, brow and scalp. We were given some of the product to use and told to have a go at one of the injuries present.

Poor plastic head man with all his injuries!

My group looked at each other in the way all groups do when asked to do a task in a workshop and then hesitated about who to go first. My brain goes quite quickly in these situations from ‘No way am I going first’ to ‘Oh go on then’ so I stepped forward. Trying to decide which injury to tackle was difficult because I didn’t want to attempt one that was too ambitious but I also didn’t want to pick a super easy one that wouldn’t be a challenge whatsoever. I settled on a cut of the bridge of the nose that was slightly more difficult in that it went across the face and had some tricky angles.

Mixing the product is harder than it looks, you need quite a lot of powder to make not very much of the pliable substance. I filled the gap carefully with the spatula and looked at what I’d done, there still was a dent in the nose just now a smoothish one compared to a ragged cut. Ben came over and explained that it could be completed in stages and I could come back to it once the original layer has hardened and apply another one on top. So I stepped back and let the other people in my group complete their injuries while I waited to go back to mine.

While we were working, Ben showed us how to add coloured pigments to the product to match the skin colour closely, so we ended up with pink, yellow and brown patches on our head where we had tried these out. He also showed us how to make a slightly stiffer substance so it could be moulded into shapes like lips and ear lobes. I did go back to my nose and I was pretty pleased with the result in the end!

Not bad right?

To round off the talk, we had another presentation from Ben but this time about suturing and the different types. He explained how each of the sutures work and how they differently close the skin. I had only really seen one stitch before so this was really fascinating to learn about. He also showed us some of the different cosmetics used and how to build up colour on his own hand using the different shades available. It made me laugh that my own hand was so bruised from my traumatic blood test I could’ve done with some of that cover up!

I had a great evening at Eastbourne District General Hospital and I would like to thank all of those who organised, attended and made it a fabulous time. Definitely want to attend more things like this in future!

Hope you’re all having a great week so far and thank you for reading.

MG x

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I DO Have A Soul!

I knew it! By knew it, I actually mean I jokingly doubted it while getting a tad worried that I had a heart of stone and nothing would ever upset me besides Supervet or YouTube videos of dogs being reunited with their owners. However on Thursday I actually got quite emotional and had a little cry at work. It took me completely by surprise, I had no idea it would but there I was in my full PPE having a quiet sob and being quite grateful no one else was in the room at the time.

I’ve written previously about knowing one day something would get me. I mean, I’ve seen everyone get emotional at some point, but the things that I thought would get me never did. In our line of work we are constantly surrounded with emotions. You deal with your own, the people you work with, the other people coming by, the highly emotional phone calls we can receive and especially the visible and audible emotions of the family visits we have. I can only describe it as this big ball of emotional energy that throws out waves every now and then. The whole time I feel you have to keep tabs on what situation, who you are speaking to and how you are feeling. I’m still adjusting to this and learning that switching about like this can be exhausting on busy days, but so very rewarding too.

The mortuary was insanely busy on Thursday, between viewings and releases and other things happening I got left to clean up the post mortem room in the afternoon. This is totally fine, I put on some music (Led Zeppelin followed by James were my choices that day) and I got on. In some ways I like working on my own, probably comes with the territory of being an only child. There was a particular patient for post mortem who had their own clothes and items with them which we had decided to put back on them after the post mortem was complete. Quite often clothes are torn or damaged in other ways prior to us receiving them into the mortuary so we remove them and put the person in a shroud. If the clothes are nice then it’s good to either keep them with them or put them back on.

As I was on my own I had asked for help to put the patients back in the fridge but I knew from the number of times I’d heard the doorbell go that no one was able to come in and help anytime soon. I decided to have a crack at dressing this patient myself and laid out all the bits and bobs I needed to do so. I found it a lot easier than I thought, carefully moving limbs about and lifting body parts to dress them. Once I’d done I tucked their item under their arm and stood back. Then in utter bewilderment to myself I started to cry.

I guess I was chuffed I’d made them look so peaceful and dignified. I was delighted I’d done it all myself for the first time. I might have still been a little emotional from the traumatic blood test the day before (that’s a story for another time but you definitely shouldn’t end up with your own blood all over your knees). Yet really I can’t explain why I cried, it didn’t feel sad or bad, I just needed to have a little cry.

Not exactly how blood tests should go… that’s my own blood on my scrubs.

Another week in the mortuary complete, the brain count is up to 30 and my training is coming along well. Next Death Cafe is coming up in less than two weeks and some other exciting events are starting to get lined up for the summer. As always, please do get in touch if you have any comments, questions or just want to chat over anything at all.

Thank you for reading and take care!

MG x

Singing to the Dead

Tuesday being the worst day of the week aside, I’m in a fairly positive and upbeat mood this week so far. It struck me yesterday how many families we get visit their relatives and sing to them. It’s happened to me on a few occasions now and I think it’s lovely. I know that there are some religious songs that are sung but it’s difficult to tell, although I’m fairly certain one family came in and just belted out a few of their relatives favourite tunes.

How sweet it must be to be able to sing to your deceased relatives and feel that connection together and with them. Personally I’m not from the kind of family who would do that, plus I’m utterly tone deaf and tend to only sing when alone in the car, drunk or simply to annoy my fiancé. However, we do play songs at the funerals I have been to, some hymns and some just meaningful songs. My Nan had a bit of Rod Stewart playing at hers because Nan really liked Rod Stewart, it wasn’t just a random choice. Music can be very powerful, and I think that song will always stay with me as my Nan’s funeral song. I’d be interested to hear what anyone else thinks about this or your experiences?

Coincidentally, Laura D sent me this passage from a book earlier she’s reading today advising that I should read it, the passage mentioning singing to a relative! It’s all connected! And I will read the book once she’s passed it on, it’s All That Remains by Sue Black.

Page 85- All That Remains photo thanks to Laura D!

Otherwise, for the past week I have been looking at the anatomy of the neck and trying to learn all the structures. Like with anything, the neck is made up of a lot of different sets of bones, muscles, nerves, veins, arteries and other features that mean I’ve really just been hugely overwhelmed. I have found myself looking at muscles on a diagram though and trying to flex them as I’m reading. I must look rather special sat there rubbing the side of my head and clenching my jaw trying to trace the muscle down my face.

I had a chance to complete a y-section on a patient recently and I found myself fascinated by the structures of the neck I revealed. Usually we will perform a midline incision starting from around the collar bones so that there is minimal disruption to the appearance of the person. I am determined to learn the names of the muscles, glands and other parts so I can name them as I go. If you need me, I’ll be staring at diagrams of the neck from various different angles with a confused look on my face.

We have a busy rest of the week ahead, lots crammed into the next three days I will update you with at the weekend!

Take care,

MG x

MG Reflects on BlogConLDN

It’s a sunny day in East London, and the Internet blogging masses descended upon the CEME centre in Rainham for BlogConLDN. I found this event myself through Eventbrite when searching for things to do while my fiancé was away that were in the local area. It seemed ridiculously coincidental that a blogging convention would be on, five minutes down the road and I would have no other plans.

I was skeptical at first, my brain assumes that a blogging convention would be full of fashion and beauty bloggers who would look slightly down on a death blogger turning up and masquerading as one of their kind. I’m not the kind of person to just turn up and see; so I did contact the organiser Scarlett beforehand just to make sure I would even be welcome!

Turns out, it was a pretty cool event. The CEME centre (that my phone keep autocorrecting to Cemetery, or course) is a nice venue for an event like this. Within minutes of turning up and noticing there was an awful lot of very fashionable people, I was approached by a lovely book blogger who asked if there was a map or programme of events. Alas, there wasn’t but we did head to get a complimentary glass of prosecco and have a little snoop around the stands. Not long after this a friend of hers arrived, a fellow book and also lifestyle/travel blogger who now blogs full time. I’m in awe of these people who are able to do this. In a world of others who blog about travel, health and beauty alongside the main bulk of fashion bloggers it must be so hard to get somewhere but these people have the confidence and the ability to really make a go of it. They headed off to a talk about Instagram, and we parted company but it was great to meet them.

I was asked a few times what I blogged about. I didn’t receive a single negative response which was surprising but also so very lovely. Many jumped to the fact my blog helps people and informs, which really put it all into perspective for me. The most perspective I got from today however, was a session I attended called Showing Up Online Without Anxiety hosted by an anxiety coach called Sam from A Happy Mind. I knew all along I wanted to attend this session from first seeing it advertised, and I’m so glad I did.

Sam talked everyone in the room individually through why we do what we do, who we do it for and how we know we are the right person for it. Even just having these pointed out to me and reflecting on this was valuable to my mind. It even justified why I had turned up to the event. I’m very thankful for this! She also came up with a tag line for me ‘Death Can Be Divine‘ which I adore!

Right now I’m sat in my garden, with my cats and having a cup of tea reflecting on it all and I can honestly say I do what I do to inform and educate. I do it because I want to reach out to those who need my help, whether that be understanding a process around death and dying or gaining some sympathy from someone who knows exactly what they are going through. This is is the purpose of my blog, and now the purpose of the Death Cafe too. My self printed ego mug seems ever so slightly less egotistic in reflection because I’m proud of doing what I do and how I got here. I deserve this mug just a little bit. I also got some inspiration to look a bit more into what I do with photos on here but that’s for another time!

Big thank you to those that organised, hosted, attended and chatted to me at BlogConLDN today. I had a blast even if I was an unstylish death blogger amongst many cool and trendy people.

MG x

I Just Really Like Talking About Death

Has it been the longest week or what? Writes the person who has had nothing but short weeks forever and has a five day week next week. Please feel just the tiniest bit sorry for me, or maybe that’s too much to ask!

It possibly felt like a long week because I’ve been non stop. I’ve also had a massive dip in my confidence due to not being all that great at evisceration this week. I felt like I lost all the skills I had mastered in the past few months but I’m certain it’s just a blip and I’ll be back soon. I had to get more help than I’ve needed in a while, and they weren’t really difficult cases.

One lovely thing that happened however, was the chance to show around a student nurse for a morning. It’s times like that when I realise that I bloody love my job and I love talking about it nearly as much. We get people approach the mortuary on a fairly regular basis asking if they can come visit, for some people this can just be a curiosity around what we do deep down in the basement. However for others they visit as part of their studies or work placements so we get a few students coming down. I think the first things people notice are that the mortuary is bright and clean, most people imagine a dark, dingy place with dubious smells and stains. I believe they also notice how friendly we are as a team! Each person has their own quirks but each of us is really cheery and friendly.

It was great to have someone to show what we do to, we each took some time with her to explain what we were doing which was nice and she asked some great questions. What I thought was very good was the fact she really just wanted to know what happened to the patients after they left her care. She thought it odd that people just were taken off to this place and no one really understood what happens after they last see them. I can see why this is the case, as people don’t like to think about what happens once you die, but I also think this is so unhealthy and people should know what happens. I can’t help but think that with that knowledge there would be far less fear from people around death itself.

With my colleague we showed her the booking in process, the cleaning of patients who have ‘purged’ (have fluid coming from the nose and mouth) and the releasing of patients to funeral directors. At the end of her time with us I gave her a quick tour of the post-mortem room (not in use at the time), the isolation room used for ‘high risk’ post-mortems and the other little rooms that come off of these. Doing this made me think of how much I have learnt in my eight months at the mortuary and how well I was able to answer her questions.

Relating to how much I like talking about my work, the next Death Cafe has been confirmed! On June 19th at the Sweet Rose Cakery in Upminster our second event will be on from 7-9pm. I’m excited to use this space as we have it all to ourselves, plus there’s wine and cake available. I think I’ll be very much a home there! More information can be found on our page here. If you would like to come please get in touch and let me know, or if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact me!

Wish you all a lovely weekend! I am attending the very exciting BlogConLDN tomorrow to learn how to make this blog better, keep your eyes peeled for any upcoming changes.

MG x

Teamwork, Bad Smells & a Brain Count Update!

Happy Friday to you all! I would like to start with the fact I have been very lucky to have another short week, and with the impending bank holiday I get another next week. It’s been nice to rest and reflect after the recent busy weeks and have some time to plan what’s going to happen going forward!

The mortuary has been busy with lots of different things happening. I think I’m starting to get the hang on the small stuff now, I definitely find myself asking less questions about the basics or in response to queries from other people. We’ve had a lot of post-mortem work happening which has meant I’ve been able to see a lot more and learn lots which is great. There was one day this week where the whole team (minus my colleague on maternity leave!) were in the post-mortem room working on people, chatting and showing each other what we had found. It was a really great time and it’s a shame it can’t always be like that but other activities often take place all at the same time limiting who can do what.

There has been an awful smell in the corridor outside the mortuary that the funeral directors and people visiting use when they come in. Everyone seems to assume it’s us… but our mortuary smells lovely! It’s funny how if there’s ever a bad smell in the hospital people assume it must be us. In fact, usually it’s the drains or the kitchens and emit really quite terrible smells sometimes too. Although, it says a lot that I don’t really notice them anymore and I don’t think the corridor smells that bad at all really.

Looking forward there’s some exciting stuff coming up. Plans are already taking shape for the next Death Cafe, although we are thinking about changing venue after a chat about the noise levels and the space at the last one. I’ve submitted my review of the last one claiming it an absolute success so I can’t see why the next one can’t be bigger and better!

Next weekend is the BlogConLDN which I am very intrigued to be attending. I think it’s mostly aimed at lifestyle or fashion and beauty bloggers but I can’t see why I shouldn’t be able to get something out of the day. If anything, there’s a complimentary yoga class which I will take full advantage of! My other half persuaded me to get some business cards printed with my blog url on them so I can hand them out to anyone who’s interested. I’ve double sided them with Death Cafe info too incase anyone asks me about that. So now I feel like a real ego monster and will probably never give them to anyone! Like the true geek that I am, when the printing company offered to print a mug with Mortuary Gem and my blog logo I couldn’t resist. That mug is officially known as the ‘Ego Mug’ because I feel ridiculous having even asked for it to be made!

Lastly, Brain Update! I made it to 25 brains removed, which I think was my first goal that I set myself. Next goal is 50. So far I’ve think it’s fair to say I’ve mastered the basics of evisceration and only struggle with some aspects now if they are complex or unusual. Since cutting myself with the PM40 I’ve become very aware of my hand placement and how to cut away from my fingers safely. I’ll get back to discussing topics from work next week hopefully and some more interesting things I’ve seen.

Thank you for reading, as always please let me know if you have any questions or comments and enjoy your weekend! I plan to spend lots of time in the hammock with a book (weather allowing of course!).

MG x

Rippleside Cemetery

Rachel and I went on a little adventure yesterday in search of a gravestone at Rippleside Cemetery in Upney in East London. 9 minutes on the tube from my home was well worth the effort. Rippleside is slightly hidden up the road from Upney tube station just one stop away from Barking on the district line. It has a small gate and a sign that is overgrown by shrubbery opposite a Ford car dealership. I went there in search of a man called John Crosby for reasons I will explain another time (intriguing? Yes!) but i can thoroughly recommend a wander if you’re ever in the area.

I should have reminded them their sign was slowly becoming part of the hedge!

I stood by the map sign at the entrance obviously looking a little perplexed when an older gentleman with a kind smile pulled up on a ride on lawn mower and asked if I was okay. I explained I was looking for a grave but I had nothing but a name, a date of death and a number that didn’t appear to correspond to anything in particular. He said the office was shut but he could go in and help me out, so he went off round the back and I waited out the front. As I was waiting a woman in a suit came out of the office and told me it was shut quite abruptly. Then the man popped his head round the door and said ‘Come on in!’. Lesson learned- sometimes the staff who are supposed to help are not that helpful, but those in other jobs are actually much better at it!

Once inside, he pulled out a dusty ledger book and we found 1921 with Mr. Crosby’s entry. The plot number was there but in traditional, beautiful script style it could have been a letter J, G, or L! He said the row number was what was important so off we trotted to the correct row in the hope of locating him.

On the way he showed me the first grave in the cemetery; a simple cross for a 6 day old little girl from 1886 huddled in amongst all the other graves in that area. One other thing he showed me was a huddle of graves to the side all tightly packed, he explained these were remains taken from Barking Abbey by St. Margaret’s church in Barking and relocated here. He said he had wanted to line them all up against the fence so you could read them but he was told they could not be moved from the relocated remains. He is such a fascinating gentleman I think I need to revisit and get his name to credit him properly!

The huddled gravestones from St. Margaret’s/Barking Abbey

Alas, John Crosby’s gravesite was used twice again after he was placed there. It was last used in the 1970s and probably bought by that family. However he will still be down there with his two new neighbours in death. It is very common for graves to be reused like this is no known relatives or grave markers are present. It’s unlikely John had a permanent grave marker or known family and therefore his plot would have come up for use again after a certain amount of time.

I felt bad that I had arranged to meet Rachel there but all this had happened before she arrived! However we did go for a long walk around he cemetery and made friends with a carnation munching squirrel. While over the other side of the site, the man pulled up on the lawnmower once again with a printout he had found. It wasn’t a J, G or an L but an I and he had all the details of the what had happened to the plot. I really can’t thank him enough for his help!

It’s a lovely little cemetery with some impressive architecture and grave markers. I’ll be sure to go back again too because I noticed some family names like those on my Mum’s family tree that she now would like to go see.

Rachel and the fearless, carnation-munching squirrel

Thank you for reading and I hope this post was interesting to you! I will explain more about John Crosby and his importance another time, I wanted this post to focus on Rippleside. I also now want to go visit the remains of Barking Abbey and St. Margaret’s Church which I might try to do next week or on the Bank Holiday.

MG x

The First Hornchurch Death Cafe

Last Wednesday my dear friend Rachel and I got together and hosted the first (certainly not the last) Hornchurch Death Cafe. I’ve had a few days to take it all in before writing it up due to a very busy few days escaping to the Isle of Wight for a wedding! However time has only made me realise what a successful event we put together and how excited I am for the future.

Leading up to the Death Cafe I had probably even got fed up with myself banging on about it to anyone who would listen. I had mentioned it to everyone and received a mixture of responses. I made flyers, I picked up a few little bits and bobs for ideas I had and then sat down with Rachel a couple of weeks beforehand to go through what we planned to do.

In all honesty, we didn’t plan as much as we drank wine and caught up! There wasn’t an awful lot of planning to do because Death Cafe doesn’t need a plan. The whole event is so simple in nature that it just works. People may need prompting but generally if you attend a Death Cafe you want to talk about death with other people.

When we arrived at the pub on Wednesday I was nervous because I had no idea who would attend or how it would go. I’d arranged the booking of a table for eight at the back of he pub away from the main part (read that as near to the toilets) in the hope we could escape any other big groups or noise. I didn’t account for the speaker pumping out music above our heads but that’s something to bear in mind for next time.

The closer it got to seven o’clock, the more people showed and we quickly filled the table for eight and took on another table and then another. Eventually we had a group of sixteen all sat around looking at us as hosts to kick things off. After a brief introduction all round, Rachel had a very good idea to number our list of topics and then get guests to pick a number. This kicked off proceedings and we discussed topics including natural burial woodlands, discussing death with children, what happens to your online persona when you die and do you know what you want at your own funeral.

I think we were very lucky with those who attended and that they all had incredible and great reasons for attending. Either due to personal interest or their career leading them to have an involvement in death, everyone had fantastic ideas and examples to contribute. The two hours absolutely flew by and I could not be happier with the results! I received some very lovely feedback from those who attended at the end and was asked several times if it would be a regular occurrence. I’m pleased to say I don’t know why it couldn’t be and I fully intend to host them again in the future.

If you did attend on the night and would like to comment below with your experience please do! Or if you didn’t attend but either would like to or have any questions please do the same. I would say that if you are interested but are unsure of if it’s for you or hesitating regarding attending then please contact me at gemmanorburn@icloud.com and we can talk it through!

Thank you for reading and thank you to those that made the Hornchurch Death Cafe the great event it was!! Hope you’ve all had great weekends.

MG x

Glorious Decomposition

Warning- this discussion may not be everyone’s cup of tea!

I hope you’ve all been enjoying the warmer weather! I knew exactly what to discuss this week, when my colleague told me that the recent change had led to the increase in what we know as ‘decomps’. Unfortunately, those that lie somewhere and aren’t found for a period of time will end up this way. Often, the are only discovered by an odour noticed by neighbours or passers by and the odour is heightened in periods of warmer weather. So on that, let’s discuss human decomposition!

The human body starts to break down as soon as the heart stops and life is gone. Almost straight away it becomes an environment for bacteria and microorganisms to thrive. Larger beings like insects also begin to notice the body quite soon after death. The stomach that’s great at breaking down food in life will begin to break itself down and eats away from the inside out.

The first signs are discolourations, purging and rigor mortis. The human body can bloom into all manner of beautiful shades of pinks, purples, reds and greens. Contents of the stomach and other areas build up and the movement of gases force them out the easiest available routes. If the staff on the wards don’t position the deceased correctly, often rigor mortis sets in before we can ensure their mouths and eyes are closed. Rigor mortis can be overcome by flexing the joints and gradually working it out. The first time I was shown that I thought I would surely break the person’s arm but it soon loosened and became flexible once more. These are all signs we see every day at the mortuary.

For our longer term people, I monitor their condition ongoing looking out for the further signs of decay. The signs I see are traces of breakdown of tissues, actual mould or skin slippage and blisters. When this begins to occur we have to consider putting the person into our deep freeze. It’s all about temperature. At room temperature this all happens quickly, 2 degrees in the fridge can slow the process right down and -16 in the freezer can cease the process to some extent until the person is once again defrosted. It is true, however, that you cannot stop decomposition only slow it right down. Even embalming does not prevent it entirely, but does cease full decomposition for some time.

The much later stages we see only when we receive the ‘decomps’. So far I’ve seen anything from the bloated and green to mostly mummified. How a person decomposes greatly depends on the conditions they are in and no one really knows- hence why we really need a body farm to determine this better. All I know is, the warmer the weather the quicker. And the more maggots I’ve seen. After what is known as the ‘bloat’ stage, the body starts to break down from that to skeletal remains.

I’d like to just say a couple of things on this, beginning with the fact this is natural. This is what your body wants to do. Personally I don’t see that as wrong. Nothing can be done to stop it apart from cremation and I’m not sure I favour being blasted with nearly a thousand degrees of flames. I also certainly don’t want to be pumped full of chemicals to pollute the ground I’m buried in. But that’s just me, you may feel very differently and I’d be interested to hear from you!

Speaking of my own wishes once I’m dead, I think I will write a post about that soon! Don’t forget that my Death Cafe is happening next Wednesday (16th May) and you should come along if you are able to! Any questions on decomposition, or anything else at all please get in touch.

Thank you for reading as always,

MG x

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