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The Dead Beat

The work of a private mortuary is soothing: it soothes the nerves of the bereaved, it soothes the violence suffered by the deceased. Police mortuaries are the cutting-edge. There the dead wash up still soaking from brutal passions and sudden calamities.

Original publication: SL, 1999.

Image courtesy of Kim Ludbrook

1. The Gateway Missionary

Every last one will come his way, hysterical for release. Hostile and ragged, he stands unmoved by the beggars at his feet. He doesn’t give two fish’s tits about their virtue or beauty. Money is what he demands, and his verminous hair and cloak trail in the wind. All around him as far as the eye can see are the souls of the dead: they are legion, massed on the shores of the river Styx like forest leaves, like displaced people or refugees flung from home. Each one is begging him to ferry them across the river to Hades, land of the dead.

His name is Charon, a death-god of classical mythology whose duty it was to ship souls to the underworld. Made carious himself by contact with death, Charon is the archetypal undertaker and his macabre image haunts undertakers to this day, even when the very way they speak about death is likely to be as sanitised as the technology they use.

Michael* is public relations officer of a large undertaking company, and his corporate brief is to change public perceptions regarding ‘the death process’. He explains that terms like ‘undertaker’ and ‘funeral parlour’ are discouraged for their ‘Dickensian undertones’. Instead, the industry prefers the synonyms ‘funeral directors’ and ‘funeral home’. What’s more, nothing sinister happens in the mortuary: bodies don’t lie naked, for instance, and their genitals remain covered during embalmings and post-mortems.

‘We’ve nothing to hide,’ Michael says. ‘The dead don’t know what’s happening, I’m convinced of that, no matter what people say about séances. The after-life is very real, but Scripture makes it clear that we can have no contact with the dead. However, the body is the house the spirit lived in and must be treated with respect and dignity.’

Far from being a Gothic charnel house, the modern-day funeral home is a place of order where routine business clicks along in deferential, almost monastic, quietness. This routine repeats itself whenever the control room is notified of a death. The phone call is verified to check that it isn’t a prank, a vehicle is dispatched, and identification tags prepared. If doctors and police adjudge that the deceased died of natural causes, the body’s brought to the funeral home, cleaned, and kept in a refrigerator. If the death was ‘tragic’ or if foul play is suspected, an autopsy is required by law, and the body’s removed to a police mortuary before arriving at the funeral home.

Next of kin are brought in to identify the body and discuss plans with a funeral counsellor. ‘We have to be 110% sure that the right body’s placed in the coffin,’ Michael says. ‘People worry: Was the right body buried? Can I be certain the ashes from the crematorium are my loved one’s? In earlier days people went home to die, not to hospitals, and the family was involved in funeral preparations. Today people don’t normally have contact with the death process, so you get the concern: Is that the right body? There’s a lot of denial at play.’

Michael doubles as a funeral counsellor. He’s no Charon, no vampiric grave-digging troll. As he swivels on the chair behind his desk, he looks like an insurance executive. His manner is assured and reassuring. Nevertheless, it’s an uneasy experience speaking to him, as if one were tempting fate. And he knows it.

‘Nobody wants the service we provide. The reason people come to us is because somebody’s died, so in counselling we have to cross a hump of resistance. I don’t deal with the physical aspects of death – I deal with the families, and their emotions are raw, often guilt-laden. They’re angry that the angel of death’s invaded their situation, and I’m sometimes the focus of that antagonism.’

Are you accused of being a parasite on others’ misfortune? ‘Yes, that kind of thing. I have to turn the anger around and make them comfortable with what they’re doing. But I also have a responsibility to steer them from financial difficulty if they want a very expensive funeral.

‘You’re working with people when they’re most vulnerable, and it’s rewarding to take someone in a broken state, to orchestrate those strands, bring them together, and let the family relax, knowing they’re in the hands of someone who’s knows what he’s doing.

‘I find the job incredibly creative. I lecture at medical schools and theological colleges on bereavement management and grief therapy. I scour newspapers for death-related articles and attend conferences. It’s not just a job, it’s a calling, a vocation to educate and help people. I’m dealing with a subject everyone has to face – it’s a mission, spreading news people need to hear. When you accept mortality, you make each day, each relationship, count. You’re building bridges.’

If Michael isn’t Charon, he is perhaps the avatar of another classical icon: Mercury, messenger of the gods, mediator between earthly and other-worldly realms. Mercury’s the patron of heralds, travellers and transitional spaces.

Michael rises from his seat. The tour of the mortuary is starting, and a gateway’s being opened.

2. Nerveless Centre

Rolling, rolling. It’s like a dream. I’m walking unstoppably through swing doors, into a chamber of concrete floors, white walls and a feel of wetness, towards the metal door at the end, but I’m not getting closer. The door’s a dull mirror. It keeps receding and my mind keeps pulling back.

The refrigerator door opens with a suction-effect and frosty air pours out. There they are. There they are. My brothers and sisters, neatly ranked on metal scaffolding and wrapped in plastic sheeting, with knots tied under their chins to stop their invisible mouths from gaping. Open coffins stand waiting for their funerals: old men and women, a girl. Some are shielded by Perspex, indicating that the bodies have been embalmed, drained of fluid – a legal requirement if the body’s due for overseas burial. They’re daubed in makeup; on the withered flesh, their nails appear longer, almost talon-like. All are clad in their Sunday best, and the bridesmaid’s gowns, the tuxedos and floral frocks, create the illusion they’re a bridal party that nodded off at an overlong ceremony and are headed for a museum display case.

‘Preserving and keeping things together: I find that interesting,’ says Todd,* a twenty-two-year-old mortuary assistant who’s completed a course in embalming and restoration run by the SA Academy of Mortuary Science. ‘Taxidermy fascinates me. Since I was young I’ve been more interested in something that’s dead – a dead flower, cats in the street – than alive. I used to do my homework in cemeteries. People think you’re a machine without feelings, but it isn’t so. I go to nightclubs, cinemas, and sleep well.’

Todd’s worked in the mortuary for three years and says it was easy to adjust to the job. Eddy,* the mortuary manager, disagrees. He’s been there for 23 years, and claims he regularly had to cajole Todd into staying. ‘It’s terrible to get used to it,’ says the former club musician.

We’re standing in the operating theatre where autopsies, embalmings and cosmetic restorations take place. It’s a tight, high room, lined with tiles and gutters, and hemmed in by cabinets and machinery. In the centre is the operating table, and in the centre of this stainless steel slab is a plug hole. A triple extractor fan clears the air, redolent with aerosol and antiseptics. Gas masks are worn, especially when working with what Eddy calls ‘the stench ones’. It’s like standing in an old-style dental surgery.

‘Let’s say the body’s been smashed up,’ Eddy explains. ‘We’ll wash it here and see how much damage we can fix – we’ll put on makeup and piece it together so that it’s presentable for the relatives.

‘Undertaking is nothing. It’s nothing to drive a coffin in a hearse the whole day. This – this is the nerve centre.’

‘Nerve centre’ in a double sense: the most critical point, and also the most traumatic. But the work of a private mortuary is essentially soothing: it soothes the nerves of the bereaved, it soothes the violence suffered by the deceased. Police mortuaries are the cutting-edge, however. There the dead wash up still soaking from brutal passions and sudden calamities.

3. Salt River Styx

Set between panel-beating yards, warehouses and shops, Salt River Medico-legal Laboratory is a barbed-wire encampment of old-fashioned buildings. Although efforts have been made to prettify the reception area, the place’s marked by government-issue austerity, and staff complain of ‘sick building syndrome’, resigned to budgetary restrictions old as living memory. ‘We’re the orphans of the police service,’ they say: ‘We’re lost and forgotten.’

The staff of 46 include policemen, cleaners and assistants; separate medical personnel from UCT visit daily. They have an in-house convention of referring to ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’, even though the place’s single-storeyed. ‘Upstairs’ means the administration quarters; ‘downstairs’ is the underworld of refrigerators and dissecting rooms. For while the mortuary also processes natural death cases, referring them to private or municipally contracted undertakers, its focus is on the ‘unnaturals’ and ‘unknowns’ – unidentified persons found in the streets or bush.

In this respect, the mortuary’s main business is to identify bodies and establish the cause of death. Given staff shortages, personnel must be adept in all aspects of the mortuary operation, from admin chores to opening the cadavers for the doctors. Identifications take place in the viewing rooms; in the case of the numerous ‘unknowns’, virtually synonymous with ‘paupers’, photographs and fingerprints are taken and referred to Central Statistical Records. The bodies are frozen, ideally for a month; if no records are found they’re passed to an undertaker for burial before they become health risks.

In the lecture room a display case contains a selection of weapons found in or around some of the thousands of bodies the mortuary processes every year. There are rows of manufactured knives placed side by side, as well as homemade innovations: a steel hoop with thorny points; a handle attached to a bicycle chain; lengths of barbed wire bound in a hessian handgrip. As if in counterpoint, the commanding officer, Captain Rico S., has newspaper clippings and Xeroxed cartoons stuck to his office walls. One of them reads: My job gives me what I need – an excuse to drink.

Stylishly groomed as if to maintain a cordon sanitaire between himself and the contagion all about, Rico’s been based at Salt River since 1986, aside from a stint at the sister mortuary in Tygerberg. All postings to mortuaries are done voluntarily. Rico joined with the intention of spending a year or two hardening himself for the grisly work policemen do at crime scenes, but the place never relaxed its hold on him.

An almost infectious hold: he believes the greatest job pressure comes from the threat of infection by tuberculosis, hepatitis and HIV if he nicks his finger during post-mortems. ‘At least 45% of the bodies here are HIV-positive but we treat every cadaver as if it were. It affects your social life if you cut yourself. It’s not uncommon for staff to have to abstain from intercourse for a window period of six months, because telling your partner a condom’s safe doesn’t always work.’ He chuckles. ‘Masturbation would possibly be the only relief.’

Contending with next of kin is another stressor. ‘If you set one foot wrong, violence can occur – fistfights, guns being drawn. Different religious factions have fought over whose going to bury the deceased.

‘Personally, one wonders if there’s an after-life. If you accept that the soul’s left the cadaver and that it’s just a shell, you can survive here. If you treat every cadaver as a person who’s died and is lying in front of you, you won’t. But if you’re wondering if you’re an agnostic or atheist, here you’ll see what your specific god allows. You’ll be confirmed in your agnosticism; you might even become an atheist. Still, you have to believe in something if you work here, otherwise you’ll become too cynical.’

Do you have any comments on a positive note?

Rico laughs. ‘That was a positive note.’

4. Downstairs

Big-boned and freckled, Inspector Dave M. is the mortuary’s longest-serving member, and as a border war veteran he’s seen it all, long before he arrived here in 1981. Nevertheless, his 18 years’ experience in every facet of the mortuary has made him even ‘harder’ than he was then. ‘Years back, if friends or relatives of mine came here after accidents, I’d feel bad. Now it’s just hello and goodbye. I’ve seen personnel coming, going – and dying. Two guys here died of TB.’

Dave and I are ambling ‘downstairs’ on the concrete verandas, our shoes wrapped in booties, and Dave’s saying in his friendly smokers’ growl that the mortuary’s in a ‘nice slack period: the odd accident and suicide, a shooting case, but nothing to speak of.

‘Personally, I’ve lost respect for death. It’s an ordinary thing. When I was young I used to worry: When and how will I be going? Nowadays I feel nothing. I make jokes and tell people I’ve numbered my plate already. They ask me if I’ve seen ghosts. Now there are guys who say they’ve heard things on night shift or get frozen in their chairs as if something’s gripping them down, but it’s never happened to me.’

We cruise inside, into a grey-shadowed interior filled with the hum of refrigerators and deep-freeze body cabinets. It has the feel of a 1950s high school lab or a well-kept public toilet: tiles, stainless steel, brown panelling, nicotinous walls. Piles of silvery body trays stand in a corner, and in the incoming and outgoing fridges, row upon double row of corpses lie naked on scaffold shelves. So this is where my father went.

Make no mistake: the dead are not the living in disguise. You want to see, you don’t want to see. You catch glimpses of penises and chicken-skin breasts, but there’s no eros in this bitter spectacle, no romance, no sleeping bridal party. You cross miles of dazzling light in the dissecting room, sailing towards the body on the butcher’s tray. You want to see, you don’t want to see. The chest’s an empty crater; the face is freeze-framed in horror.

His eyes are open. A man is stitching his head together.

5. Outcast Contagion

The man is Peter W., one of the assistants responsible for cleaning the bodies and sewing them together after autopsies. He’s also a missionary for The True Gospel Messengers.

‘Life’s so quick,’ he says. ‘You’re alive but in minutes you’re dead. I tell people to prepare themselves for God. When you see bodies that have been stabbed 40 times, you wonder what went through that person’s mind to do such a thing to another.

‘When the policemen and doctors finish, they go upstairs, but I’m downstairs the whole day, so you must get used to the smell and be prepared for anything – maybe you’ll get a sickness. You wash your hands before you eat but you’re never sure if you washed them properly. You’re praying that God will cleanse you from inside as well.’

Constable Leon G. joins in. ‘I’ve just washed my hands, but when I stand up I’ll touch this, touch that, and my hands’ll be septic again.’

Leon volunteered for the comparative safety of mortuary work after his partner was killed in an ambush. His role is to collect bodies from scenes of death, and while he admits that the job isn’t always stressful, he believes ‘you must have courage to handle bodies.’

As he speaks, his voice rises higher, increasingly plaintive about the outcast status of those who have to do the dirty work the rest of society puts firmly out of mind. In particular, Leon’s incensed at the loss of the extra pay policemen on mortuary duty once received. He says a visiting party of female MPs were in tears when they saw the bodies. But the tears dried, and the MPs left, leaving Leon and co. in the shadows again to shoulder the burden. ‘Those larneys felt what it’s like to be here. All we want is some recognition in the form of extra money.’

‘You could die of sickness here or carry it home. When you go home, you’re not physically stressed – you just feel so drained. My kid jumps up at me. I can’t refuse him. But that smell, the sickness, sticks to your clothes. You undress in the bathroom because the fleas from the bodies are eating you up. I can’t even wash my clothes with the family’s. It’s the smell – you carry the smell of rotting.’

I myself washed my clothes separately after visiting death’s gateway, even though they hadn’t been stained. The fear of contagion is a pragmatic one, but it reflects a primal anxiety felt by those inhabiting society’s border zones, however deadened they themselves may have become: that the dead, impatient for Charon to conduct them to their own society, will invade the society of the living and seize us one by one.


* Names have been changed.


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