DEATH - The Last Taboo by Chris Longmuir

Dundee University - College of Life Sciences where CAHID is based
          Although death and dying are celebrated in some cultures, people living in Britain tend to shy away from it. Despite the fact that this is something that will happen at some point, the subject is rarely discussed. However, there is an exception to this, and that is crime writers. Perhaps they don’t speak about death, but they certainly embrace it in their fiction. In fact, looking at my own crime books, there is only one which doesn’t have dead or death in the title, and that is the first book of the Dundee Crime Series named Night Watcher. Book two is Dead Wood, and book three is Missing Believed Dead. Even my new series features this taboo word, and we meet my new investigator, Kirsty Campbell, in The Death Game.

          So, when an invitation to be a friend’s plus one, on a visit to Dundee University’s new mortuary appeared in my email inbox, I jumped at the chance. I was positively drooling at the opportunity to inspect this state of the art facility.
Professor Sue Black
The mortuary is situated in the award winning, Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID), and is headed by Professor Sue Black renowned all over the world for her expertise in human identification, forensic anthropology, cranio-facial reconstruction, and lots more besides. She appears regularly on the telly during her visits to disaster zones and is the leading authority in her area of work. Is it any wonder I accepted the invitation so readily.

The mortuary, as I’ve already said, is a state of the art facility. This is thanks to the massive fundraising drive that was started in 2011, by the crime writer Val McDermid. You may have seen it advertised under the catchy title of Million for a Morgue. We don’t actually have morgues in Scotland, they’re known as mortuaries, However, Million for a Mortuary didn’t have quite the same ring to it, and anyway, a mortuary and a morgue are the same thing.

          Crime writers taking part in the fundraising included Tess Gerritson, Kathy Reichs, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Mark Billingham, Jeffrey Deaver, Jeff Lindsay, Stuart Macbride, Peter James, Caro Ramsay, and Val McDermid. The author with the most public votes (each vote cost £1) would win the morbid honour of having the new mortuary named after them. Apart from the money raised from the votes there were other fundraising activities going on, one of which was publication of The Killer Cookbook, described as the grisliest approach to dinner since Hannibal Lecter. A lot of writers were asked to donate recipes, myself included, but my recipe never made it onto the page – as you know domestication is not my forte. Anyway, how could I compete with recipes like Lamb to the Slaughter; Deadly Drizzle Cake; or Dead Man’s Breath. Did you notice we’re back to death again?

Anyway, enough of the factual bits, and on with the visit. Unfortunately our guide wasn’t Professor Sue Black because she was away for the day. However the guide we had was excellent and provided the group with many snippets of information. The first place we visited was the Stuart Macbride Dissecting room. Stuart was a runner up in the competition, and dissection appeared to be an appropriate area for him to be featured. The room was large well lit and full of trolleys which, although covered, were obviously not empty. Yes, you've guessed it, there were bodies under the plastic sheets, but they remained covered. This is the room where medical students, surgeons, dentists, scientists etc, practise dissection. Hip replacement was one such operation mentioned. As our guide said, if we were having an operation would we prefer the surgeon to have gained his expertise on real bodies or not.

The bodies used for dissection had been donated by their ‘owners’ prior to death. Any person wishing to donate their body to science has to complete a consent form containing three areas of consent. They may consent to one or all three.

1) Consent to their body being used for training purposes.

2) Consent to retaining parts – if this is not given all parts of the body are returned for cremation at the appropriate time.

3) Consent for images to be taken.

The bodies are known as cadavers, and the use of the Thiel process for embalming ensures lack of smell and full flexibility. The other aspect the university enforces is respect for the bodies. Any student not showing respect is not allowed to continue.

Our next stop was the Val McDermid Mortuary. Yes, Val won the competition with the most votes cast in her favour. The first room we entered was the embalming room, the only place in the UK to use the Thiel embalming process. Every body arriving at the mortuary is embalmed, and the process takes approximately an hour. After the body is prepared it is immersed in the Thiel solution (embalming fluid) in one of the Thiel submersion tanks in an adjoining room. There are 44 tanks in the room holding up to 110 bodies. Oh, and before I forget, all the other crime writers in The Million for a Morgue campaign have had one of the tanks named after them. I spotted Peter James on one of them.

The cadavers are kept immersed for up to two months after which they are removed, vacuum packed, and stored on ledges in metal cabinets that look a bit like wall to ceiling filing cabinets. Prior to storage each body is tagged, by cattle tags, in four places, one on each ear and the other two on toes. Oh, and if you’re wondering about the vacuum packing it’s done using an oversized shrink wrapping stand attached to a vacuum pump, and the shrink wrap doesn’t look much different from the stuff in your kitchen, although a lot stronger. By law, the cadavers can only be kept for three years, so any dissection has to take place within that period of time, after which the bodies are released for cremation, and the students attend the funeral service as well as the families.

It was certainly an interesting and informative tour, but we weren’t finished yet. We were invited to join the rest of the group in a meeting of the Death Cafe. As neither I nor my friend had heard of the Death Cafe before we were intrigued and, lacking any explanation of what it was, we joined them in their meeting at the Students Union.

I started this article by talking about the last taboo – death. Well that was what the Death Cafe was all about. You can check it out here where it tells you that a Death Cafe is a place where people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. It is a discussion group ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’. It is not a grief support group, nor does it involve counselling. It is about facing up to death, the last taboo.

And now that I’ve faced the last taboo, it’s time I got back to work, killing people – on the page that is – for the edification of my readers.

Chris Longmuir


Susan Price said…
Really enjoyed this post, Chris - thanks. It's not a place the general public get to visit much, the mortuary - and not many want to! Fascinating though.
I was disappointed you didn't get to meet Professor Sue Black though - I got quite excited when you mentioned her. I'm a big fan. Love her series, 'History Cold Case' and often rewatch it. It's astonishing how much she and her team can figure out from some ancient bones.
Chris Longmuir said…
I've met Sue Black on several occasions, but never in the mortuary!
AliB said…
Fascinating post, Chris, even if I find it a touch macabre to think of such things being named after writers! But it is interesting to think about attitudes to death and does no harm to consider the value of cadavers to medicine - and of curse fiction!
Sandra Horn said…
A great post, Chris! I don't think of it as morbid at all. We need to talk more about death, bring it out of the shadows, get to grips with it.
Chris Longmuir said…
AliB - We were told that Lee Child didn't want his name on one of the tanks because his surname is Child. His tank is named Reacher, after his fictional character.
Nick Green said…
Do we really have a taboo on death? I'd say we celebrate it as much as any culture, with our devotion of whole literary genres to it. Look at crime fiction - it should really be called murder fiction, since there can't be many crime books that don't include murders. Also witness our obsession with war films and medical dramas. We don't shy away from death. We are addicted to it.

We may be more reserved when facing actual death, that's all. Victoria Wood summed it up best. In some cultures, the wife throws herself on the funeral pyre. In Britain, she says, 'Right, Aggie, sixty white baps, you slice, I'll spread.'
Chris Longmuir said…
I did say with the exception of crime writers, Nick. There are many cultures that celebrate death, but we only celebrate it in fictional terms. As for war, yes, that's about death but it often takes second place to the drama of the action. What we aren't good at is what the members of The Death Café do, discuss death as it relates to us or our loved ones before the death actually occurs. We wait for the bereavement process instead. So, I suppose we talk about death after the event rather than before the event. After all, how many of us discuss with our dear ones, their imminent death or ours?
Mari Biella said…
An interesting post, Chris. I do feel that we've become slightly estranged from death and dying, mostly because they're kept away from our eyes now. (The portrayal of death on page or screen is different, I think.) Increasingly, people die in hospitals or nursing homes rather than at home. No sooner has a death been certified than the body's been whisked away to the mortuary or funeral home. It's a huge contrast to the past, I suspect - I remember a friend of mine telling me that her mother, in wartime Manchester, used to offer her front room for the laying out and wakes of people who had no relatives to do it for them. This wasn't considered morbid or odd - it was normal, and very community-spirited.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Great post Chris really interesting and enjoyable. I my be just a tad jealous that you've seen the new mortuary though :-) What a fab experience
Lydia Bennet said…
Wonderful post Chris, interesting I thought that they actively encouraged a link between real cadavers donated for science and medical training, with fictional murder via the named crime authors, I've never encountered that before - though clearly a good move in fund raising! The nearest I've come to the great Prof Black is via some email exchanges a while ago. Yes Susan (Price) the History Cold Case series is excellent! That poor Ancient Roman woman pregnant with triplets still haunts me.
This is very much up my alley, as you may know I've spent time as Writer in Residence at medical schools, anatomy depts, brain institutes and so on, and have taken part in dissection sessions, helping put out the cadavers and body parts and putting them away to make myself useful. I've seen a lot of dead bodies and also witnessed death and people near it. It's an eternally fascinating subject and possibly the huge amount of crime fiction on TV, movies and in books reflects an attempt to deal with death at one safe remove?
Susan Price said…
One of my Dad's earliest memories was of going to bed - in the dark - and having to squeeze past the open coffin of his grandfather, who was being waked in their house. It would have been about 1933, when he was about five. It wasn't a happy memory.

And I once met an old lady who told me her memory of going 'to view' a neighbour who was laid out on the sofa in her parlour. 'There was water dripping from her through the sofa onto the floor,' she told me, her disgust still strong.

I'm not arguing that our present attitude to death is correct - but these stories are partly why we like it kept tidily in hospitals. What happened to the sofa, I wonder?
Kathleen Jones said…
Loved this Chris! Fascinating place.
Dennis Hamley said…
Great post, Chris. Julia Moffatt, when she was editor of Point Crime at Scholastic, insisted that the title of each book should have either Death, Dead, Die or Deadly (a bit weak that last one, although I used it once) in it and it was a sad day when she left and we had to think for ourselves. Seriously, I think the more we know about death and its processes, the better we can come to terms with them. I faced it in my open heart surgery thirty years ago when I thought I wouldn't get through and since then have faced the prospect of death if not with equanimity and definitely not with resignation but certainly without fear of the unknown.
glitter noir said…
Well done, Chris. But a team of wild horses couldn't drag me into the Death Cafe. I give wide berth to the D word.

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