A hospital nurse meditates on death
Pre-body bag postmortem procedure required at least two people. We rolled a body back and forth on the bed between us and slid strings and a plastic sheet underneath. The strings were identical to those that used to hang from reels on the ceilings of bakeries. Remember how clerks snapped them with their bare hands and tied up a cake box? After we got the sheets and strings under the bodies, we tied the hands together, put dentures in the corpse's mouth if he or she wore them, wrapped the ends of the sheet over and around and tied the strings to seal it. Wrapped bodies usually looked sloppy. Sometimes the sheet didn't fit all the way around. There would be discussion concerning whether to use bows or knots or one followed by the other. Sometimes we resorted to tape. That was in 1986.
Then came body bags, without fanfare or introduction. Usually new hospital equipment gets hailed and praised and announced and 'inserviced' until all 'affected' employees are exhausted. They snuck body bags in. I opened a 'postmortem pack' one day and stared at the contents, confused. Something was different. There was no plastic sheet. We had body bags now. I ran from the utility room pulling the yellow zippered bag out of the pack. I yelled, 'Look, look!' Most people had already seen them.
Bags. The postmortem pack also contains 'toe tags' and paperwork: a death certificate work sheet, a blank death certificate, and forms for organ donation or autopsy. I think the forms have changed over the years, but I can't pinpoint that -- the secretaries handle the paperwork.
I handle the bags themselves. I can describe them in minute detail. They're yellow. One size fits all -- I've never encountered a body too long or too wide for one. They zip open and closed; the zipper is cloth. They're surprisingly heavy, and they smell like a brand new baby doll, almost like the inside of a new car. Everyone's probably smelled that smell before. Now, I involuntarily startle whenever I smell those things.
My worst moments are with bagged bodies at the elevator. Imagine waiting for an elevator, two employees making small talk and a horizontal bagged corpse under a sheet. Then, in the elevator, a violent moment -- the powerful dead and the two of us and maybe someone else who came around the corner and needed to ride downstairs, all slammed up against the walls by an egotistical cadaver who lies quietly in the center, taking up all the space.
Our fear is quite simple really. Death takes away people we can't live without. And, if we didn't know them, death takes away people we wondered about, washed, and talked to. Or people we didn't like and hid from. It makes them shrivel and stink.
And I know bodies stink. How? In old hospitals, the refrigeration in the morgue goes on the blink a lot. Once I encountered several of my neighbors nervously standing in front of a bush at the end of our street.
'It stinks,' said one, pointing at the bush.
I sniffed. No. There wasn't a dead human being in there. I explained how I knew, and they dispersed. I've become an authority.
Odd things we end up doing for a living. Your instructors will tell you you'll get used to it, but don't believe them. Death is always shocking. My only advice to other professional death participants is: Observe what you must, record the truth, make it public.
In the early hours one morning, as several colleagues and I stood in a hospital room, somewhat stunned, watching an elderly woman die unexpectedly, her eyes opened and fixed on a point on the ceiling. We watched her eyes track an invisible object across the ceiling.
'There's an angel in the room,' someone said. This was a moment of terrifying sweetness.
A few closing observations: Most people die with their eyes closed. They tend to die faster if you hold their hands. I've never seen a ghost.
There are more things to say, and hopefully others will say them when they need to. Hear us out, and discuss what we say. Don't go backwards. I'm glad we have body bags now, because no one likes death. It's scary. It's sad. Admit it. Hear us.
From Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses, University of Iowa Press, 1995.