The Beauty of Body Bags

I’ve sometimes thought a ceremony would help, a ceremony
surrounding a hospital death. I’ve even brought it up with
administration. I’ve worked in a hospital for a pretty long time,
long enough to remember some things being different from what they
are today. Other things haven’t changed at all. We don’t have a
ceremony. We do have a new logo on our sheets. I’m very glad of one
thing, though: We have body bags now. We didn’t have them when I
started, and I soon became very resentful. I knew they’d had body
bags in Vietnam, twenty years earlier. Why couldn’t we? Body bags
are progress, no doubt about it.

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.

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