Mortuary Assistant Required
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT from PRX and NPR, the "Quick Fix" episode. My name is Glynn Washington and we know that life is not always about having the finest solution to your dilemma. It's about getting it done right now, no nonsense, no self-doubt, no pointing fingers. Did Michael Jordan asked Phil Jackson if it might be a good idea to shoot the ball? No. MJ went strong to the hoop. And for our next story, Simon Winchester goes strong to the hoop as well - kind of. Quick note - this story does have some gruesome aspects, Snappers. Be warned - if your kids aren't into guts and gore, you might want to tune out, but (laughter) then you're going to miss all the fun - SNAP JUDGMENT.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JOE ROSENBERG, BYLINE: So I have to admit, the guy I interviewed for this story...
SIMON WINCHESTER: Yes, I'm Simon Winchester. I'm a writer.
ROSENBERG: He's the writer actually of some of my favorite books - "Krakatoa," "The Professor And The Madman."
WINCHESTER: I had been a journalist and foreign correspondent for most of my career, based in all sorts of places - Delhi, Hong Kong, East Africa, you name it.
ROSENBERG: But this is the story of a job he had once upon a time that was a little less glamorous.
WINCHESTER: It takes place principally in London in the autumn of 1962. I had left school and I completely fell head over heels for a young girl from Canada. And I vowed that during the year off I would go and visit her. And I found out how much the fare was and it was about 100 pounds, which was an unimaginably large sum of money. And so I looked around for a job.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WINCHESTER: And you looked at factory jobs and things like that which were mind-numbingly dull. A lot of friends of mine would work in retail, but that was very badly paid. But there was a small ad which said mortuary assistant required; some basic knowledge of human anatomy an advantage but not essential. It also said 11 pounds weekly. And so I applied for the job.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WINCHESTER: I went to this office in this great big Victorian mausoleum of a hospital. And there was this man called Mr. Uttam (ph), very large, burly man but with a club foot, so he clumped everywhere. But he was terribly enthusiastic that I had called because he said I was the only applicant for the job. And I said why? He said, well - he said, it's - I suppose it's sort of necrophobia or something. It's (unintelligible) strange so I can't imagine why people are upset about dead bodies. And I chimed in with yes, I have no fear of dead bodies. I'd dissected lots of mammals, including rabbits, and I figured that a human was essentially just a large rabbit. He said you sound to be just the chap and offered me the job on the spot.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WINCHESTER: But he didn't really get into any detail about the job description itself. I assumed it would involve the rudimentary things - opening freezers, putting them on stretchers and wheeling them around. But then he talked vaguely about - that I wouldn't feel at all squeamish about preparing the corpses. And I said preparing them - what actually do you mean by preparing the corpses? And he said, oh, you'll soon get the hang of it, don't worry about it, and said I've got to catch my bus and clumped off to the bus stop and see you on Monday.
I did wonder what on earth I had gotten myself into, but nonetheless, I went home that evening and told my mother. And she was not at all dismayed. She thought this was quite a good job, particularly, she said, because you could bring me lots of flowers. Wherever there are dead people, she said, there are flowers.
So I'd turned up on Monday ready for work. And first, before Mr. Uttam took me into the mortuary itself, which I hadn't at this stage seen, and demonstrated to me what went on. So they pulled a body out, put it on the gurney, lifted it - all of us together - onto the slab. And here I think the first one was a late middle-aged man and we...
ROSENBERG: Can I - well, let me stop you for one second. This first body - was this the first dead body you ever saw?
WINCHESTER: I believe it was actually, yes.
ROSENBERG: Was it like a rabbit after all?
WINCHESTER: No, it wasn't. It was - there was a - for a start, the smell is terrible. The smell of the formalin that they use to preserve them, the sight of it, the clamminess of the flesh, the fact that it's insensible it doesn't move. And, it has to be said, opening up the intestines is not an attractive thing to do. You have to make an incision from the bottom of his throat to his belly button, break open the chest bone with large pliers and then pries the chest open. But the pathologist, this very, very large, imperious German lady called Mrs. Fleischhacker (ph), instructed me how to do it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Come on, just pull it a bit harder, Mr. Winchester. You play rugby at school, didn't you? Who do you think you are?
WINCHESTER: And I'd always remember one of the more choicer details of her work was that she would smoke incessantly and would always tip the ash into the open chest cavity. And, of course, if it was a long and involved one, it would look like a sort of large bloody ashtray in there. And then finally when she had finished smoking, stub the cigarette end out in the chest cavity. Anyway...
ROSENBERG: Oh, my God. I have to ask, how did you react to seeing all this at first?
WINCHESTER: I just thought I was in the middle of some mad comic opera. Even I think at school we had treated the rabbits with some degree of tenderness, and this seemed to me truly monstrous. But it is rather astonishing what you can get used to. And after a week or so, I was accustomed to it and I daresay I thought it was perfectly normal behavior.
One of the bonuses of the job I had was that for every body I'd be paid four extra shillings. And that was a tremendous way to make a lot of money in those days because the winter of 1963 was the high point of one of these great London fogs, thick, choking, sulfurous clouds of industrial pollution. I mean, I would ride home on the bus, a policeman would be walking ahead with a flashlight to show the bus driver, who couldn't see his hand in front of his face, where to go. It felt like you were breathing hot woo. It was miserable stuff which killed people right, left and center.
There was one spectacular Monday where I came in and I think there were 30 bodies. I mean, the fridges could only accommodate about eight I think, so that was six extra pounds or something that I would earn that day. But to get through 30 bodies, that means one every 20 minutes or so. And so I became really fast and quite proud of the speed with which I could do this and because one had to sew them up afterwards, remember, and I had never sewed anything in life. I hadn't darned a sock, but I learned how to do a very good and very quick blanket stitch. And to do three of those an hour - tricky.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WINCHESTER: And there was - there was corruption. I mean, I don't know if this is an appropriate moment to bring it up, but after about a week in the job, a sort of shifty man came 'round and said somewhat furtively - he said are you the new new mortuary assistant? And I said yes. And he said, well, we're doing research on the pituitary gland. We'd like to harvest them. Would you mind doing that? So I said yes. Technically, of course, it is a crime. So I didn't tell Mr. Uttam about it. But all I really had to do was to reach my index finger between the back of the brain and the skull and you feel this pea-like thing, which is the pituitary, and you can pop it out, catch it in your hand and drop it in a jam jar. And every time I'd fill the jam jar up, I'd ring up this chap and he would come 'round from the hospital, take the jam jar away and hand me a five-pound note.
ROSENBERG: And would you do this on every corpse?
WINCHESTER: Yes, I think so. Well, every corpse that I took the head off - the back of the skull off - and that wasn't every corpse, but it was most of them because Fleischhacker liked having a sort of feel around in the brain to make sure that there was - everything was OK up there.
ROSENBERG: Since you had to do it a little bit on the sly, like, when did you do it and, like, how long did it take?
WINCHESTER: After I got the technique down, it would take about 20 seconds. Just reach in there, lift the brain up, push it forward and then out it comes.
No other crimes were committed, I suppose, but everything did come to a sort of rather shattering halt when I made my first inadvertent mistake. Must've been September or October of that year. It was before lunch. I opened the door of the fridge, and anyway, there was this chap. He was dressed - in other words, he wasn't in pajamas - and I think he probably therefore had come from home. And he had a tag on his toe, like a little, you know, Paddington Bear luggage label, saying question mark leukemia. And there was no one to ask what to do. I don't think Otten (ph) had come in. Fleishicat (ph) wasn't there. But there was a manual in Otten's office, but, I looked up in the index and it says leukemia, and it said you take out the longest bone in the body, which is the femur.
ROSENBERG: You had never removed a femur before.
WINCHESTER: No, and it's not an easy thing to do. I mean, it makes what happens at Thanksgiving with a turkey child's play. And eventually, with some wrenching and twisting and turning, I managed to get this nice clean bone out of the leg. I was relieved. I was out of breath as well, said, thank God I got that out. The trouble was, in preparing this body, this chap's leg and the flesh of his unsupported upper leg kept from falling off the table. So I was - if you can imagine this sort of Laurel and Hardy sort of thing, it just - I lifted it up and put it back, and it kept falling off again. I'm sort of wrestling with this inanimate but nonetheless moving fleshy thing and I'm sort of, get back, will you, for God's sake?
And as this was happening, the undertaker came in and he says, oh, what's wrong with that body? And I said well, I had to remove his femur. He said, well, I can't take that, mate. He says, I'm not allowed. But presumably, there was a burial scheduled, there was an event, there were grieving relatives waiting. And I wasn't going to be the one to be blamed for the body not appearing. And I said, well, come on, I mean, this is ridiculous. Why don't you just take him and put him in the coffin and take him away? He says, no, no, no. He says, you've got to have something in his leg to stiffen it up a bit. So I said, well, all right. What do I use? He said, it's not my job to tell you what to put in his leg, mate. So I'll tell you what, he says, I'll go and have my dinner, and when I get back, I'll expect you to have stiffened his leg up.
So he went off, and I didn't know what to do. I mean, what on Earth do you put in a chap's leg? So I went out in this sort of yard behind the mortuary, which is a horrible place and - you know, puddles and grease and rats and things. But there was a length of drain pipe lying there.
ROSENBERG: What is going through your mind at that moment?
WINCHESTER: It's an answer to my prayers - oh, thank you, God, thank you, God, I've found something that'll make his leg stiffen up. So I took it back and jammed one into his patella, and then put it through the musculature and it fitted perfectly. The leg shot out like a ramrod. It couldn't have been better. So I stitched him up, put his clothes back on just in time, and the undertaker came back. He says, marvelous, mate. He said, I don't know what you've done, but I'll sign for the body. Thank you, and I'll take it away.
I was riding high. I could see why I'd gotten into Oxford. I was brilliant. And the fact that Sid (ph) said, oh, it's a pretty good job, mate, I felt so proud. Praise from an undertaker is praise indeed. But it came back to me the next morning, when I heard Otten being either screamed at or screaming into the telephone. I knew he was on the phone because I could see into his office, and I didn't know if someone was angry at him or he was being angry at them, but he was angry. Then he slammed down the phone, and he clumped in on his bad foot into the mortuary, and fixed me with a glare. And he pointed at me and he said, Winchester. And I thought, my God, what have I done wrong? And I was racking my brains to think, you know, was it these pituitary glands, had someone sort of rumbled the scheme? Obviously, I'd made some sort of big, big bish and I didn't know what it was. And he soon told me because he said, you know that body yesterday? Did you - you dealt with someone that had a tag saying leukemia? And I said, yes. And you put something in his leg? And I said, yes, I did, I put a piece of drain pipe. He said, Winchester - he said, that body wasn't buried, he said, you idiot, it was cremated.
In an instant, I thought, oh, my God, and just instantly imagined that when the coffin rolled into the flames and then they were raking out the ashes to give to the grieving relatives, there was this horrible clunk, and then a rather agitated official says, you know, it's not going to fit into the urn, I'm afraid because there's this - and 14 inches of drain pipe comes out. I thought, oh, my God, this is just not what I imagined. I had no thoughts. I might even get sacked.
Otten's face was black as thunder, and he took me by my ear. And he takes me to a cupboard and he opens it - it's unlocked - and in it, there is a sort of a basket full of what looked like sort of quiver-full of white pine chair legs. And he said, if you ever encounter such a case again - chair legs, they incinerate to nothing.
And this seemed a mistake that I'll never forget. It's seared into my consciousness. Never put a drain pipe into a man's leg.
ROSENBERG: Did you take your job more seriously after this?
WINCHESTER: Yes, I think I did take it more seriously. There is a veil of secrecy, much as there is behind the kitchen doors in a restaurant. And I think Otten wanted to preserve the mysteries of what happens to a dead person. I mean, a few minutes or hours before, they lived and laughed and loved and all the rest of it. They were a living person. So there is an obvious violation, putting in the scalpel. Would I ever have said anything to them under my breath? I probably would, I should think. I wouldn't say prayers or anything like that, but I would probably say, this isn't going to hurt a bit.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Simon Winchester. We appreciate it. But Mark, please don't tell Simon when I kick the bucket. And just in case you're wondering, Simon did buy that ticket to Canada and saw his girl again, just as promised. He says they're friends to this day. Simon's next book is called, "Pacific."
WINCHESTER: Nothing at all to do with dead people - all about the life of the modern Pacific Ocean.
WASHINGTON: It's coming out in October from HarperCollins. You'll find a link to that and more on our website, snapjudgment.org. The original score for that story, in all its glory, was done by SNAP JUDGMENT's Renzo Gorrio. It was produced by Joe Rosenberg.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WASHINGTON: Now then. You just found the answer to the problem that you didn't know you had. That's right. But Glynn, I need more SNAP in my world. Well, not to fear - we've got hours of SNAP entertainment awaiting you right now. Snapjudgment.org. Subscribe to the podcast, Facebook hit me, Twitter hit me, yes that is me, and I want to hear from you. SNAP was produced by myself and the team, an amazing team that never passes the buck. Please, put your hands together for the uber-producer Mr. Mark Ristich, the beat master Pat Mesiti-Miller, Anna the banjo Sussman, Julia DeWitt listens to the Blowfish and that guy that used to sing with them. Joe Rosenberg hates music of all stripes. Davey Kim has a quick fix of his own. Eliza Smith is in the mix. Ana Adlerstein drop-kicks. Renzo Gorrio eats Trix. Leon Morimoto runs quicks. Matt Ducat wins tick. Who wrote this stuff? Jazmin Aguilera, she won't have any of it. Our executive, executive producers today were the super special, awesomistic SNAPers, Jack and Finnegan Rossback (ph).
Now, did you ever tell Visa and MasterCard that you live at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? It works wonders. You should try it. Much love to the CPB. PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, can't be bought with real money. But if they land on boardwalk when you've got hotels, Monopoly money works great. Prx.org. WBEZ in Chicago, the place to W-B-E-Z when you're in Chicago. And this is not the news. No way is this the news. In fact, you could see the hole spring out of a dyke, trick someone else into sticking their finger in the hole while you make your big escape, and you would still not be as far away from the news as this is. But this is NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.