My First Mistake

In 1962 a college student answers an ad: “Mortuary Assistant required.”

By Simon Winchester

Thursday, December 05, 2013


 An autopsy room.

The victim of the first big mistake I ever made was a gentleman to whom I had never been properly introduced (and whose name I still do not know) but who was possessed of three singular qualities: he was alone in a room with me, he was without his trousers, and he was very, very dead.

Some context might be useful. It was the winter of 1962. I was eighteen years old and had taken a year off before going up to Oxford University. I also had a girlfriend far away in Montreal, and in the superheated enthusiasm of my puppy love, I had promised to visit her. The fact that I then lived in London and she three thousand miles away meant that fare money had to be amassed: I had to get a job, and one that paid well enough to allow me to get away to Canada as quickly as possible.

London had two evening papers back then, the News and the Standard. It was in the classified columns of one that I spied the advertisement: “Mortuary Assistant required,” it said. “Eleven pounds weekly.” The bar to entry was hardly Himalayan. “Some basic knowledge of human anatomy an advantage, though not essential. Telephone Mr. Utton, Whittington Hospital, Highgate.”

I knew Whittington, a great, gaunt Victorian redbrick workhouse of a building on a north London hillside along the A1, one of the roads leading in and out of the capital. Karl Marx was buried in the cemetery around the corner. There was a lovely park up the hill.

The mortuary, if not perhaps especially congenial, certainly was well fitted to my interests. I had just passed, and rather well, my A Level examinations in chemistry, physics, and zoology; for the latter, under the invigilation of a small man named Mr. Hawthorne, I had dissected on the slab just about every imaginable type of creature, from amphioxus to zebra. Well, perhaps not zebra, but certainly very many mammals, including rabbits aplenty. And believing that a human is basically a very large rabbit, minus those ears and tail, prompted me to pick up the Bakelite telephone on our hall table and call Mr. Utton.

He seemed surprised. Pleased, too, for it turned out no one else had applied for his job. “Necrophobia,” he whispered darkly. “A puzzling failing,” I explained to him my sanguine notion of man’s comparability to a big rabbit; he laughed, and wondered aloud why more people didn’t think that way. An interview followed: Utton turned out to be tall and solid man with a clubfoot and a ready laugh. I told him that I was rather more interested in the money than the biology; he responded that in addition to wages, he paid a per-body bonus of four shillings, and that a quick worker could soon be in pretty decent funds. “All these London fogs,” he remarked. “They’re killers. Bodies just pile up here.”


He hired me, more or less on the spot. We walked down to the pub to celebrate and shared a cheese sandwich on a bench across from Mr. Marx’s tomb. Over lunch Mr. Utton explained precious little about the job, focusing instead on his fanaticism for crosswords and his curious interest in names. His own peculiarly unaspirated surname was down to a spelling mistake on his birth certificate, he said. On the other hand, the pathologist assigned to work on the bodies I would prepare was a German, and she was named Fleishhacker, which sounded to Mr. Utton as though it should mean butcher, but actually didn’t.

Er—“bodies which I would prepare?” I enquired, as lightly as I could. “Oh, you’ll get the hang of it,” said Mr. Utton, rising without further ado and clumping over to the cemetery bus stop. When I got home and told my mother I would be working in a mortuary, she sighed a little but quickly made me promise I’d bring her flowers. “There are always flowers when dead people are around,” she said. “And it is not as if they need them.”

Atmospheric formalin, when in strong enough concentrations, catches in the throat something terrible, as Londoners say. And I confess it was the smell of strong formalin that almost drove me away on my first couple of days in the morgue. Only a distant vision of the Canadian Pacific office on Cockspur Street, and the pince-nez’d clerk there who stood ready to hand over my sailing ticket on presentation of the hundred-odd pounds I expected to earn, kept me working in the cadaver-preserving miasma.

The cadavers themselves I didn’t mind. Each morning a new offering of corpses lay in serried ranks in the freezer, each body fresh from a hospital bed upstairs in which the late lady or gentleman had breathed their last. My allotted task was to heave them out one at a time, wheel them onto the autopsy slabs, and “prepare” them, as Mr. Utton had rather elliptically suggested.

Perhaps you won’t want to know too much about what preparation involved. I’ll just say this: if you can accept the basic premise that Frau Fleishhacker’s task was to poke around her customers’ insides to establish what made each take their leave of us, then I was the chap who opened the various doors to allow her to do so. I made lots of long incisions, cut off lots of things, and used a high-speed Skil saw for the trickier bits (required, for instance, if her Frau-ship ever needed to inspect a brain).

I also weighed lots of things—lungs especially. The black lungs of heavy smokers I would weigh once, then squeeze under cold running water for fifteen minutes until they became baby pink and tripelike, and then weigh again: the difference in the two figures, often a couple of pounds or more, was the weight of the tar and nicotine that quite possibly was the killer.

It wasn’t only smoking that lacquered up one’s innards with tar. Living in the London of the day was none too healthy, either. More than once the bus I rode to work had to be led by a policeman walking on the road with a red flashlight, so thick were the greasy, sulfur-dioxide-laden pea-soup fogs that in 1962 were so bad as to send people by the hundreds to hospitals some days. One Monday, after a weekend of especially thick smog, I arrived to find no fewer than thirty bodies waiting for their preparation, all of them felled by respiratory complaints. At four shillings a piece that was six extra pounds pay, plus a whole hothouse of flowers for my mother.

To tidy things up after the autopsy was over—and I couldn’t help but feel a little queasy over the way the Berlin butcherette smoked furiously throughout her procedure, tipping the ash and then later stubbing out the butts in the cavity I had opened for her—I developed a very adequate blanket stitch, which impressed my mother no end. By the end of each procedure, the bodies looked as good as new, and I also took pride in dressing my charges as nicely as I could, if the relatives had left clothing. I wanted their encoffination—the mot juste, apparently—to be accomplished with some sartorial dignity.

In the interests of full disclosure I should add that I was also persuaded to commit a series of small crimes during my sojourn at the hospital, and which I hope I can safely confess at this remove of half a century. I stole pituitary glands. About a hundred of them over the months. A research hospital had need of them—pituitaries produce a multitude of hormones, including the one that makes us grow, and I proved myself quite adept at finding them: a quick probe inside the base of the brain with my fingers, and the pea-sized gland would pop out of its cavity like a snail out of its shell. Each time I collected a jar full, a furtive man in a white coat would come around to collect them, handing over a five-pound note in exchange. If ever I felt squeamish, the man reassured me that those to whom the glands belonged would be unlikely to feel the loss, nor to complain.

All this may have been a mistake of judgment. It was not, however, the Mistake. That came a month into my employment when a couple of attendants wheeled in to the mortuary the lifeless and, except for his bare feet, rather well-dressed corpse of an elderly, white-haired man. By this time such a delivery was quite routine: I had already had many similar encounters with the lately dead. But this fellow was different, mainly because he had a large tag tied around his big toe. On it was written a question mark and in large letters the word LEUKEMIA.

I was alone in the building at the time of the delivery—Mr. Utton was away, seeming to have something going on with the mortuary’s tea-and-cleaning-lady, an aged Cockney who dribbled but who made a very good cuppa—and I wasn’t immediately sure what to do. But a bit of riffling through his desk eventually fetched up a tattered old manual describing what to do in the event of discovering gunshot wounds, for example, or upon finding an eruption of angry-looking and possibly infection-laden spots on a corpse. The pamphlet had an index, and on finding the word leukemia, it offered me a single line of advice: Remove femur, it said, and send it for examination by the laboratory.

No problem, I thought to myself. I removed the old gent’s pinstriped trousers—in fact, I stripped him almost naked, as I usually did—and after completing all my other signature open-door incisions, I made a neat slice down his thigh, hip to knee, worked my way steadily through the musculature and connective tissues and arrays of ligaments, and finally unearthed, gleaming solid white against all the liquid scarlet, the longest bone in the human body. The femur.

It was quite tricky to remove—think of deboning a chicken, only much bigger and stiffened with rigor—but after ten minutes of cutting and twisting and yanking, the bone came free, and I put it in a bag and sent it on its way to the laboratory upstairs. They would examine the marrow, I imagined, and determine with precision the cause of the old man’s passing.

My usual routines of slicing, dicing, weighing, probing, and waiting for the pathologist’s grunted okay consumed the rest of my morning, so it was approaching lunchtime before I had the elderly gentlemen blanket-stitched back to normal and his clothes back on. He looked in pretty fair shape, except that his leg, unsupported by any internal skeletal scaffolding, kept flopping off the table. For some reason that still puzzles me, no matter how often I pushed it back up, it always contrived to free itself and flop off toward the floor.

It was at this moment when the undertaker arrived. He was called Sid; a gloomy man who swore a lot, when he saw the pendulum swinging of the boneless leg, he displayed what I can best describe as an animated vexation. He declared vehemently that he was not effing taking that body with that effing leg, or words to that effect. It’d be so effing difficult to get it in the coffin, for starters. Not signing for it. Not taking it away.

What to do, I asked. “Not my effing problem, mate,” he returned. But then, taking pity: “Tell you what. I’m just going for me dinner. Be back in an hour. Just go and find something to stiffen up the leg, put it in the old bugger, and then I’ll be back at two. Sound like a plan?”

Nothing inside the morgue seemed suitable for stiffening up a dead man’s leg. Maybe outside. It was November, cold and raining. The backyard of a Victorian hospital is not much to see, all grease, rats, and puddles. But lying on the ground there just happened to be a drainpipe made of galvanized zinc, about three feet long, two inches in diameter, and apparently doing nothing useful, like draining. That might do the trick. I thought.

Somewhere in the back of the mortuary I remembered a vise, and I had the electric saw that I employed from time to time. Clamping down the pipe, I applied the saw to a mark that I had made on its upper fourteen inches, and after a deafening sound and a cascade of sparks, a rod the length of my gentleman’s thigh bone dropped onto the floor.

I took off his trousers, undid my stitching as quickly as I could, jammed the drainpipe between pelvis and patella, and noted with pleasure and relief that the afflicted leg shot out like a ramrod. I hurriedly stitched the gentleman's wound back up, dragged up his pinstripes, fastened his belt, and zippered his fly.

Just in time. Sid, now well lunched and with the smell of beer about him, returned promptly, cast a professional eye on the client, allowed as how I had done a bang-up job, signed my piece of paper, and wheeled my man to his waiting Daimler, dropped him into the coffin in the back, and tamped down the lid. “Nice job!” he said, and asked for my name. I felt a sense of palpable pride.

When Mr. Utton and his lady friend returned from their own long lunch, I decided not to tell him what had transpired. Besides, we were busy, and there were many other late people to be accommodated—before long the case of the elastically legged businessman and the initially unhappy undertaker quite slipped my mind.

Until the next day, around noon. There was a telephone call. Mr. Utton answered it, his replies couched in tones of gathering astonishment. As he slammed the receiver down, he turned to me. “That,” he said, “was the undertaker. You dealt with an elderly gentleman yesterday morning?” he inquired. “Well, there was a problem it seems.”

He waited for a second, as the hairs rose on the back of my neck. And then he continued. The gentleman wasn’t buried. He was cremated.

I got it, in a sudden grisly moment. In my mind’s eye I could see it all unfolding, second by ghastly second. The melancholy gathering at the columbarium. The quiet words of comfort from the black-clad minister. The coffin, decked with flowers, poised on its rollers. The vicar, all comfort offered, pressing a hidden button in the recesses of his pulpit. A pair of velvet curtains swishing aside. The coffin beginning to move down that long dark tunnel of the oven, a blaze of light, a roar of blue flame, the swift closing of the steel doors, and then the congregation standing, muttering platitudes, its principals offering thanks to the priest, and the others slowly filing out among the pews. And then, loudly, from within some mysterious somewhere—an all-too-audible sound. A clunk. A harsh metallic clunk. Next: an exclamation. A surprised exchange of voices from among the unseen workers: Hello, says one. And what might this be?

Fourteen inches of red-hot galvanized zinc, raked out where only three pounds of warm bone ash had ever been expected. An immeasurable surprise that prompted much anxious discussion among the relatives, once the sheepish crematorium manager explained what had happened. There was some wailing. Suggestions of complaints. Lawsuits, even. But then after some few moments, one of the uncles in the group tried to make light of the affair, with remarks that went along the lines of, “Old George! I never knew he had it in him!” A drainpipe. Much distress. Then black humor.

But Mr. Utton took it much less lightly. He turned to me with rage on his face and lumbered at warp speed across the room. With a flourish he unlocked a cupboard and pointed down to a quiverfull of rods. “Look here,” he said, almost pulling me by the earlobe. “Chair legs,” he said. “White pine. Turns to ash in a second.” He spat in disgust, and clumped off back to his office, grumbling as he exited. “Don’t make that mistake again.”

And no, I never did. Three months and fifty-odd cadavers later, I was safely on the steamship to Montreal.

I had exchanged the hundred mortuary pounds for a ticket to a new world, and freedom, and the start of a lifetime of wandering, and to places faraway where formalin is just a word, and nothing more. I have never been to a mortuary since, and suppose I won’t visit one again, or not until, just like the old gentleman without his trousers and with a drainpipe in his leg, I’m just too past it to care.