‘The first dead body you see should not be someone you love,’ she said.
About fifty of us are in a large room at University College London, holding a ‘wake’ for a long-dead philosopher on his 270th birthday. His severed head, on show for the first time in decades, is in a bell jar by the Budweisers. Down the hall, his skeleton sits in a glass box as usual, dressed in his own clothes, his gloved skeletal hand perched on his walking stick, with a wax head where his real one was supposed to go, back before the plan for preservation went wrong. Students nearby pay him as much attention as they would a piece of furniture.
Between annual checks to note new stages of decrepitude, Jeremy Bentham’s real head is usually locked away in a cupboard, and nobody gets to see it. Dr Southwood Smith, executor of Bentham’s will and dissector of his body, had tried to preserve it so it looked untouched, extracting the fluids by placing the head under an air pump, over sulphuric acid. But the head turned purple and stayed that way. He admitted defeat and contacted a wax artist to create a fake one, while the real head was hidden. But three years prior to tonight’s wake, a shy academic in charge of Bentham’s care had shown it to me for a piece I was writing. We peered at his soft blond eyebrows and blue glass eyes as his dried skin filled the room with the smell of beef jerky. He told me that when Bentham was alive he used to keep his future glass eyeballs in his pocket, getting them out at parties for a laugh. Here they were now, 186 years after his death, wedged in leathery eye sockets, looking out on a room full of people gathered to talk about society’s backward attitude towards death.
Bentham was an eccentric philosopher – some of his ideas would land him in prison today, or at least get him thrown off the university campus – but he was ahead of the curve on many things. As well as being a champion of animal rights and women’s rights, he believed in gay rights at a time when homosexuality was illegal, and he was one of the first to donate his body to science. He wanted to be publicly dissected by his friends, and everyone here is the kind of person who would have gone to watch. Already we had heard from Dr John Troyer, the director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, who talked about growing up in a funeral home, in a family where death was not taboo, another house where death was everywhere. Then a gentle palliative care doctor encouraged us to talk about our own death before it happens, to have our wishes (however mad) in place before we go, like Bentham had done. Finally, Poppy Mardall, a funeral director in her mid-thirties, stood up and told us that the first dead body you see should not be someone you love. She said that she wished she could bring schoolchildren to her mortuary to confront death before they have to. “You need to be able to separate the shock of seeing death from the shock of grief,” she said. She thanked us for listening and sat down, the beer bottles clinking on the table.
In all of my thinking about death, I had never considered this idea – that you could deliberately separate these specific shocks to save your own heart. I wondered what I would be like now, if I had met her as a child and she had shown me what I had wanted to see. I was always curious about what dead bodies looked like, but I assumed that when I saw someone dead it would be because I had known them in life. It’s not like anonymous dead bodies were easy to come by – I hadn’t even been shown the one I did know, nor did I see the ones that came in the years after: more school friends (cancer, suicide), four grandparents (natural causes). The psychological impact of losing someone you love and confronting the physical reality of death at the same time, and the tangled mindfuck that might be, was not something I thought I could swerve.
A couple of weeks after Bentham’s wake, I was sitting on a wicker chair in a brightly lit room in Poppy’s funeral home, an old brick gate-house by the entrance to Lambeth Cemetery. Colourful Easter eggs filled a small bowl in the centre of the table, poppy flower decals stuck to the vast Victorian windows. Outside, snow was gathering on the sandalled feet of a stone Jesus. Lambeth Cemetery is less grand than the famous seven that form a ring around London – Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Abney Park, Brompton, Nunhead and Tower Hamlets – those large garden cemeteries built in the nineteenth century to deal with the overcrowded parish churchyards in the middle of the growing city. Unlike them, Lambeth has no extravagant mausoleums, no grand promenades, no tombs as big as houses to flaunt the wealth of its dead inhabitants. It is practical, small, unpretentious, and so is Poppy. She’s easy to talk to – you can imagine her being a therapist, or a good mother. I had been so struck by what she said in her speech that I wanted to hear more. She clearly thought of her role as much more than a job. Also, as I had never seen a dead body before, in person – decapitated philosophers notwithstanding – I wondered if she might be the one to show me. It’s not a favour you can ask of most people.
We don’t open the fridge doors just to see people,’ she says, matter-of-factly. ‘I want us to be careful with the behind-the-scenes thing – it’s not like a museum. But if you had a spare couple of hours, you could come back and help get someone ready for their funeral. Then you’re actually having an engagement with the body, rather than just seeing a load of dead people.’ I blinked at her. I didn’t think she’d actually say yes, let alone invite me to be involved in someone’s funeral preparation. I’m here because she said it’s something she wishes she could share, of course, but even so, there are some doors that have been closed for so long it can seem impossible to imagine them opening. ‘You would be very welcome,’ she insisted, filling my stunned silence.
In the UK, a funeral director needs no licence to handle the dead, as they do in America. Here, all of Poppy’s staff come from places other than the funeral industry: Poppy herself used to work at the auction house Sotheby’s, until she felt the meaninglessness of her work life bearing down on her. Aaron, who now runs the mortuary, a short walk across the cemetery from where we sit, used to work at the greyhound track nearby; the body collection van driver, Stuart, is a firefighter, and says that working here part-time is like going back for the ones he couldn’t save. Poppy said I could come and be trained like they were, as if I was starting work here too.
‘Had you seen a dead body before you became a funeral director?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she says. ‘Isn’t that insane?’
I try to figure out the path between hectic art auction house and running a funeral home and I cannot begin to make a guess. ‘I meet people who have a much clearer reason for doing this kind of thing,’ she says, laughing. ‘For me, it wasn’t like that at all.’ The way she tells it, the route may have been winding, but her motivation is lucid, even if she couldn’t see it at the time.
It was Poppy’s love of art that got her into the world of auction houses – first Christie’s, then Sotheby’s – and it was the fun that kept her there: the adrenaline, the socialising, the unpredictable nature of where in the world she could end up. ‘A guy called saying he thought he had a Barbara Hepworth sculpture in rural Texas, so the next day I was on a flight,’ she says, picking an example she says wasn’t even particularly unusual. ‘I was twenty-five, I had buckets of responsibility, it was fun, fun, fun. But quite quickly, I felt like there was a vacuum of meaning.’ Her parents, one a social worker and the other a teacher, had instilled in her an obligation to help people in need, and her job at Sotheby’s was – while exciting – not fulfilling that need in herself. ‘From a sustenance point of view, I couldn’t live off selling paintings,’ she says.
In her spare time she became a Samaritan, volunteering to answer the phones at the charity that provides emotional support to those feeling lost or suicidal. But as her job became busier, as the travel kept her further away from home, her shifts would get missed or moved. ‘It made me very sad. I spent about two years just not having the answer. I was having a sort of quarter-life crisis.’ She knew she wanted to engage with regular people on the frontline of existence, to do something that mattered – birth, love or death, it wasn’t important which – but she couldn’t figure out how, or what, until life began to make the decision for her.
The fact that everyone we love will one day die often doesn’t dawn on us until something bad happens. Poppy hadn’t processed it herself until both of her parents got cancer diagnoses in quick succession. ‘Our family is super open about everything,’ she says. ‘My mum was rolling condoms onto bananas when I was five, which didn’t make any sense to me, she just loved the idea of breaking taboos. But we didn’t really talk about death. We’d never had that discussion, or not in a way that I understood it. I was twenty-seven when my dad got sick, and it was genuinely the first time I realised he was ever going to die.’
This realisation arrived in the maelstrom of her crisis about her job. Conversations long ignored were now being had. When it was clear that both of her parents were going to survive, she saved some money, quit the art world and went to Ghana for a break. There she got typhoid and nearly died too.
‘Jesus Christ,’ I say.
‘I know! Anyway, I was sick for eight months, so it gave me this very long period of inactivity and a chance to think. The job I would have picked if I hadn’t got typhoid would have been a lot safer. This,’ she says, motioning to the funeral home around us, ‘was definitely the craziest thing on my list.’
Funeral directing was on the list not only because it involves one of the big life events Poppy wanted to be part of, but because her mother had made it clear what she did and did not want in a funeral. Researching options as her parents became sick, Poppy had seen how stuck in the past the industry was, how little room there was for personalisation. The shiny black hearses and top hats, the stilted formal processions, were not right for a family like hers. Now she wanted to play a part in changing the world of death, but even she didn’t know what, exactly, she meant by that. It wasn’t until she started her training by shadowing existing funeral directors, at the tail end of her own sickness, when the fatigue had lifted enough to leave the house, that she understood what she had been missing. She stood in a mortuary and saw death for the first time in all its unterrifying banality, and it struck her that she was angry. She had been forced to face the idea of death – in her family, in herself – without ever knowing what it looked like.
She stood in a mortuary and saw death for the first time in all its unterrifying banality, and it struck her that she was angry. She had been forced to face the idea of death – in her family, in herself – without ever knowing what it looked like.
‘It would have been really helpful to have had dead people in my life before then,’ she says. With two small children, Poppy likens the intensity of her fear to pregnancy. ‘If I was nine months pregnant and I was going to give birth any minute, but I’d never seen a child under the age of one, it would definitely be more scary for me. I would be giving birth to something that I’d never seen before, and could not imagine.’
I ask about the bodies we do imagine: the ones that aren’t just pale and sleeping, the decayed, bloated corpses our minds serve up for us. They do exist. Should there ever be a limit placed on what the family can see? ‘Suggesting people shouldn’t see the body comes from a good place of care and concern, but I think it gets very patriarchal and patronising about what people can cope with,’ she says. ‘Not everyone needs to see the body, but for some it is a primal need.’
There was a man, years ago, who came to Poppy with a question. His brother had drowned and had been in water for a long time – long enough that every funeral home he spoke to said that the body could not be viewed. ‘The first thing he asked us was, Would you stop me from seeing my brother? It was a test. He was asking, Are you on my side or are you not on my side? It’s not our role to tell people what they can and cannot do. We’re not here to force a transformational experience on people who don’t want it. Our role is to prepare them, to gently give them the information they need in order to make an empowered decision. You don’t know them; you don’t know what the right decision is.’ The man got to see his brother one last time.
She tells me when I come back the mortuary will be beautiful, because it has to be: it’s critical that she keeps the dead somewhere lovely because she wants to let the living in. ‘Lots of people who visit our mortuary say things like, “Why have you put the mortuary here? This is the most inspiring space.” I just feel like that is the point.’
Back I went. The snow had long since melted.
This is not how I expected a mortuary to smell. I had pictured a room without windows, squeaking linoleum floors, the stench of bleach and rot. I had predicted an assault of fluorescent strip lights that buzz and blink, not a place bathed in warm spring sunlight making everything shine and glitter, steel and wood alike. I’m standing by the door in a disposable plastic apron, my hands sweating inside nitrile gloves. Roseanna and Aaron, wearing matching green fleeces and the same crinkling plastic as me, are readying the room: she’s rolling a gurney out from the corner, he’s making neat notes in a black ruled logbook. A shopping bag of folded clothes sits by the sink, waiting to be worn for the last time. I lean awkwardly against a shelving unit of polished wooden coffins, trying not to get in the way. It smells of pine.
There are thirteen bodies in the house today, their names written by different hands on small whiteboards stuck to the heavy doors of the mortuary fridge. Soft-lit lamps dangle from the crossbeams above, but it’s so bright outside they were likely only switched on by habit. Everything that is not metal is made of wood. The door of the cupboard by the sink is ajar; inside, a bottle of Chanel No. 5 stands by bamboo headrests. The new coffins stand upright in their rows, catching the light, their corners bound in cling film for protection from bumps. There are two wicker caskets acting as bookends, and on a high shelf, a Moses basket for babies – blue-checked print, small, waiting. A picnic basket, but not.
It wasn’t always a mortuary. Below the arched, lead-lined window, the wall of white refrigerators hum low and steady where the altar might have been back when this was a burial chapel, before it fell into thirty years of disrepair, abandoned but still standing in the middle of this cemetery in south London. It was rescued from slow dilapidation by Poppy when she was a new independent funeral director in need of a place to house her dead. Long ago, the dead would spend the night before their funeral in this building. Poppy has restored it to its original use.
She’s not here today with me – I’ve been left in the hands of two trusted employees. Poppy has had her experience of meeting the dead, and now she’s leaving me to mine. But as I look around the room, her presence is everywhere: it is practical, unpretentious, welcoming. I see a kitchen sink and bench in one corner, all that is required for the kind of body preparation done here, and remember her telling me, as the snow fell outside, that there is no embalming done on the premises. ‘We want to provide what’s useful for the public, and when we set up I wasn’t sure that embalming is happening for the family’s sake,’ she said. ‘I think it’s happening because of how funeral directors are structured.’ She explained that not every high-street funeral home has their own wall of fridges, not everyone has space like she does, so bodies are kept in a central depot and ferried to and from other locations as required. If a family wishes to view the body, the chances of it needing to be transported and therefore out of refrigeration for a period of hours – maybe ten, maybe twenty-four – are high.
Embalming, which preserves the body and allows it to be kept at room temperature for a longer period without decomposing, makes the admin of moving bodies easier on the funeral home – it gives them more time. Here, if a family specifically asks for a body to be embalmed, Poppy would facilitate it, and the process would take place elsewhere. But in the six years she’s been running her business, she is yet to be convinced that it is as important as some claim it to be. She is, as always, ready for someone to change her mind.
In these fridges, everything that needs to be done has been done. All the medical interventions have been completed, the autopsy incisions sewn up, all the evidence has been gathered and weighed. Here they become people again, not a patient or a victim or a fighter in a battle against their own body. Here they are finished, just waiting to be washed and dressed, then buried or burned.
I remember the filmmaker David Lynch, in an interview, talking about visiting a mortuary when he was a young art student in Philadelphia – he had met the nightwatchman in a diner and asked if he could come see it. Sitting on the mortuary floor, the door closed behind him, it was the stories in all of these bodies that got to him: who they were, what they did, how they got there. Like him, it’s the scale of it, both large and small, that sweeps over me like a wave: all of these people, all of these individual libraries of collected experience, all of them ending here.
The fridge door opens with a clunk and a body is pulled out on a tray that slots into the gurney, raised by a hydraulic pump with a loud metallic hiss to waist height. The fridge hums louder, the machine whirring to correct the temperature rise. Aaron wheels the body into the centre of the room and looks at me, backed up against the coffins, fidgeting with my apron. From where I stand, all I can see is the dome of a shaved head resting on a white pillow. His name is Adam.
‘We need to remove his T-shirt, the family want to keep it,’ Aaron says. ‘Could you come hold his hands?’
I step forward and take the man’s cold hands in mine, raising his long, thin arms above his body so his T-shirt can be inched over his bony shoulders. Holding them there, I lock on to his face, on his half-open sunken eyes that clung to the corners like oysters in their shells. Aaron will tell me later that they always try and shut the eyes when people arrive here – the longer you leave it, the drier the eyelid becomes, the harder it is to move and manipulate. These eyes are not round like marbles, they are deflated, like what- ever life was there had leaked out. You can look into the eyes of the dead and find nothing, not even a familiar shape.
Adam had been clutching a daffodil and a framed family photograph in the refrigerator – that was how he was positioned when he had been collected from his home, where he had died in his bed – but both were lifted off his chest and placed to the side, out of the way, while I wasn’t looking. I think, later, that this was the only chance I would get to see this man alive, but I was so fixated on Adam, as he was then, that I missed it. I wish I had seen it, but I can’t blame myself: this was the first dead person I had ever seen, and here I was holding his hands.
I had wanted to see what death looked like, and Adam looked dead. Unembalmed, naturally dead. He had been in these refrigerators for two and a half weeks and it showed, even though in terms of decomposition, his had been a best-case scenario – the interval between his death and cold storage had been kept to a minimum. His mouth was half open, just like his eyes. I could not tell what colour they had been in real life, or if any of the colours he was now would relate to anything that he looked like a month ago. He was a sickly yellow from jaundice, but it wasn’t the brightest colour on his body. As his T-shirt slid over his head, I could see that each protruding rib was highlighted in an even brighter yellow, contrasting with the lime green of his stomach and the darker black-green in the spaces between each jutting bone. The stomach is usually the first place to show signs of decomposition, filled as it is by design with bacteria, but I didn’t know that death, something so emotionally black, could be so bright: the sight of microbial life taking over a human one is almost luminous. His back was purple from where the blood had pooled; no longer pumped around the body by the heart, it oagulate and darken where it stands. His skin was bunched in places from being stored in a position a live person would have wriggled out of for comfort, but without life and movement to keep skin supple, a fold remains a fold, an indent an indent. His legs were yellow-white at the top and purp- lish behind the knee. He wasn’t old. Forties, maybe. His family wanted his shirt back. It was blue.
I couldn’t tell if his ribs had stuck out like that in life, or if he had – like his gaunt face – generally sunk. The muscles on his slim legs said he was a fit man, possibly a runner. You don’t need to know how someone died when you’re only there to dress them, and you rarely find out, but the fentanyl painkiller patches on his arm and sticky outlines on the skin where previous patches had been removed suggested a long illness. Roseanna gently rubs at the places where the patches used to be, trying to get rid of the glue. ‘We remove as much as we can without damaging them,’ she says.
‘If we start removing a plaster and someone’s skin starts to come off, we’ll just leave it.’ She tells me that as much as possible, they make all evidence of hospitals and medical intervention vanish. Nobody needs to go to their grave wearing compression socks and the disconnected end of an IV drip.
The shopping bag is fetched from the sink and emptied onto the bench. Trainers, bunched-up socks, grey boxer shorts with a hole in the crotch. All of his clothes were old and casual, picked out of his closet by his family. Everything was worn except for his trainers, which looked like they’d been owned for maybe a week at most. I flip them over in my gloved hands and wonder when he had bought them, whether he felt well enough to believe he had time to warrant new shoes. What’s the joke about the old guy not buying green bananas?
Aaron removes Adam’s underwear, carefully keeping a sheet over the groin, trying to keep the body covered at all times out of respect. ‘After we remove the underwear, we check he’s clean. If he’s not, we clean him.’ We roll him on his side, Aaron checks the situation, we roll him back. Roseanna takes one side of his fresh underwear and I take the other, each of us edging them up his yellow legs inch by inch. His skin is so cold I comment on it, then feel stupid. ‘After a while you become accustomed to them being cold,’ says Aaron, reassuringly. ‘Then you go on a home collection for somebody who’s just died and they’re still warm. It’s … quite a strange feeling.’ He shoots a look like the warmth is unnerving, an unwelcome sign of life in a situation where a drop in temperature helps him mentally separate the living from the dead. Here, the fridges are cooled to 4 degrees Celsius.
We roll Adam on his side again, edge the boxer shorts up. We roll him the other way and do the same. Dressing the dead is all pretty self-explanatory, you’re just dressing a man who isn’t helping. ‘I like the way they haven’t bought new or fancy clothes for his funeral,’ I say. ‘They’re probably his favourites,’ says Roseanna. It’s hard not to piece together a personality from the scant details provided in a shopping bag.
Aaron asks me to lift Adam’s head in my hands so he can slip the clean T-shirt on. I’m leaning over the gurney, holding the sides of his face as if I’m about to kiss him, thinking, Unless somebody hauls him out of his coffin tomorrow, I’m the last woman on earth to hold him this way. How did we get here?
Unless somebody hauls him out of his coffin tomorrow, I’m the last woman on earth to hold him this way. How did we get here?
‘Place your hand up through the trouser leg and take hold of his foot,’ directs Aaron next. With his light blue jeans bunched over my wrist, I grip his toes. As we move him, rolling one way and then the other to pull the jeans up, trapped air escapes from Adam’s lungs with a sigh. There’s a smell of slightly-off chicken, raw, still cold.
It’s the first smell of death I’ve encountered today and it’s instantly recognisable. Denis Johnson wrote about this smell, in a story called Triumph Over the Grave: he said that ethyl mercaptan, the first in a series of compounds brought out in the process of putrefaction, is routinely added to gas to make leaks detectable by scent. The practice originated in the 1930s, after workers noticed vultures in California would circle the thermal drafts around leaks in pipelines. They ran tests on their product to see what had attracted these birds, ordinarily lured by the odour of decay, and found trace amounts of this compound. The gas companies decided to amplify the effect, deliberately adding larger quantities of something that happened accidentally, so that humans could smell it too. It’s a perfect Denis Johnson fact, a writer whose stories could seem nihilistic and bleak but could end on a line of strange hope. He found the life in the smell of death, the hope in birds ordinarily cast as omens of doom; he found that something so funda- mental in our fear – death and decay – could be quietly repurposed to save our lives. I thread Adam’s belt through the loops, buckling it at a belt hole only recently broken in.
We line up the coffin on another gurney beside him and position ourselves to move him. Each of us grips the waterproof calico sheet under his body – a legal requirement in unsealed wicker coffins – and we lift him in. His head is cocked quizzically on his pillow, the coffin just long enough. He’ll only stay like that for a night. Tomorrow, he’ll be cremated. This whole person will no longer exist.
Aaron places the photo and the daffodil back on Adam’s chest – the yellow flower has lost its spring perkiness and slumps against the fabric of his clean T-shirt, this one crisp white. We lay his long fingers over the stem. Dressed and packed in his coffin, we slide him back into the fridge, on a shelf adjusted to accommodate the height of it. Beside him, in the dark, more heads rest on pillows beside rosary beads, flowers, picture frames. A single crocheted Rasta cap. We only get one ending, one ritual – whatever it might be – and I was part of Adam’s. Aaron writes his name on the door and I stand silent with a lump in my throat. I’ve never felt more privileged and honoured to be anywhere in the world.
The artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz wrote in his memoir Close to the Knives how the experience of his friends dying of AIDS in accelerating numbers, with no government action to stop it, left him feeling acutely aware of himself being alive. He saw, as he put it, the edge of mortality. ‘The edge of death and dying is around everything like a warm halo of light sometimes dim sometimes irradiated. I see myself seeing death.’ He felt like a runner who suddenly finds himself in solitude among trees and light, and the sight and sounds of friends are way back in the distance.
On the Tube home from the mortuary, I am aware of my own breathing, conscious of the fact that there are people lying in fridges who cannot. I am aware of the mechanism of life: the fact that this meat machine moves, somehow, and then it doesn’t. I look at people in the Tube carriage and I see death. I wonder if they own the clothes they will die in, I wonder who will take care of them when they are dead. I wonder how many people hear the clock tick as loudly as I do right now.
I go to the gym, but this time it feels different. Usually I come here to quieten my mind; today it is irretrievably deafening. The sound of the living is unbelievably loud when you’ve been in the company of the dead. In a spin class I hear people gasping, heaving and shouting. It’s the sound of survival, the impermanent and unlikely state of being alive. Everything is more vivid than usual, every sense heightened. These vocal cords being used, these hearts beating and lungs inflating, monotonous and vital. I feel the physical warmth radiating off strangers, fogging up the windows. I feel the blood rushing through my veins. ‘Nobody dies in spin class!’ shouts the instructor. ‘Push yourself to failure!’ I’m thinking that one day all of these bodies will fail and everything will fall silent but for the hum of the mortuary fridge.
I lie on my back in the heat of the sauna, each bench barely bigger than the tray that held Adam, and I make one of my arms go limp. I pick it up by the hand and imagine someone is peeling the T-shirt off my dead body. But it doesn’t matter how hard I try, I can never fully relax my arm to the point where it’s a dead weight. It doesn’t feel the same. Lying next to me, a sweating, live woman tells me that she’s started Botoxing her feet. Botox your feet and you can numb the pain enough to stand in heels all day, she says. When did we forget that pain is a warning, a scream from the voiceless parts of our bodies saying it needs help, something is wrong, something requires our attention? I’ve got this great way of dealing with things that might be damaging me – I just switch off the notifications. I drop my arm again. Today was the first death I’ve experienced where none of it was mitigated or obscured in some way, none of the notifications were turned off. It was all there. It felt real and meaningful, like I would be missing something crucial if I put any of it on mute. I think of Adam holding his faded daffodil, and how the bulbs, if eaten, can numb the nervous system and paralyse the heart.
Hayley Campbell is an author, broadcaster, and journalist. Her work has appeared in WIRED, The Guardian, New Statesman, Empire, GQ, and more. Her books include All the Living and the Deadand The Art of Neil Gaiman. She lives in London with her cat, Ned.