M is for Morgue

(This post is part of my ongoing series ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy.)

The sign by the door reads “Decedent Affairs.” It’s a euphemism. Nobody whose loved one is being treated in the hospital, or who is actually a patient there, wants to see the word “Morgue” as they walk down the hallway. That’s the rationale, as I understand it. But the morgue is there. We all die sometime, whether or not we want to admit it, and a lot of us die in hospitals. When that happens, the morgue is where a body stays until it is picked up by the funeral home.

I’ve been to the morgue many times. It no longer fills me with the sense of dread I had on my first morgue visit, as a brand new chaplain intern in training. From the moment I saw “Morgue tour” on our schedule for that day, my heart was pounding. I expected to see (and smell) gruesome things. But it was mostly just a big, cold room with metal tables. All the bodies were in drawers, not out in the open. No autopsies were taking place before our eyes. I survived that visit, and all the ones since, when I have gone with families to view the body of someone they loved who died suddenly. It isn’t pleasant, to be sure, but neither is it unbearable.

Maybe the reason that it’s bearable for me is that I have the luxury of thinking of the body as an “it.” Very few times have I been in the morgue with the body of someone I knew as a living person. That changes things. For the people I’m with, the body is not an “it,” but their mom, husband, son, sister, fiancée, best friend. Nobody wants someone they love put in a bag and stored in a freezer. And yet, that’s exactly what happens to our loved ones – or what remains of our loved ones after death. Something of us departs at death, to be sure; I’ve felt it happen enough times when I’ve been in a patient’s room at that final moment of life. But the physical body stays behind, and sometimes doesn’t even look that different at a glance than it did in life.

When I presided at my grandmother’s funeral, I found some wording in a minister’s handbook that I loved for the graveside service. “We now commit all that is mortal of Carolyn to the earth,” I read as my family stood near the casket. It felt appropriate. We had already committed her soul, her spirit, whatever part of her was not mortal to God in the days she spent unconscious in the ICU. And yet after death, we wanted to make sure her body was cared for, too. At the funeral, she was wearing nice clothes, had her hair done, and my aunt made sure that her mother had a manicure, as she almost always did in life.

None of those niceties is present in the morgue. Here, the fact of death seems more real than it does anywhere else. There are no soft lights or pretty flowers like at the funeral home. The body will not be cosmetically enhanced with makeup and nice clothes here. Here all the bodies are tagged and zipped into nondescript bags. I’m told that years ago, long before I worked there, the chaplains in my hospital also served as de facto morgue attendants. They would assist and/or supervise as the body was cleaned a bit, tagged, and placed in a body bag, then escort it to the morgue. They would remain with the body until someone from the funeral home arrived to pick it up. My colleagues and I are quite relieved that this is no longer part of our job description.

At the same time, I can understand the logic behind the previous practice. Even after we have provided spiritual care to the dying person and their family, there is still something sacred about caring for the body of the deceased. Those of us who are religious and/or spiritual can be too quick to emphasize the hope of life after death, when in the moment, death feels so real and final to the loved ones of the deceased that they can’t think of anything else. Not long ago, I was with parents whose grown son was about to go to the morgue, and knowing their strong Christian faith, a well-meaning friend told them, “He’s already in heaven. You’ll see him again. This is just a shell; it’s not really him. He’ll be waiting for you in heaven.” His mother, in her pain, shouted back, “But what about now?! Right now I don’t get to go to heaven with him; I have to leave him here! This is him. I know what he looks like, feels like, smells like, ever since the first time I held him in my arms. Don’t tell me that’s not him! He’s right here. I’m his mother and I should be with him! How am I supposed to let them just take him and leave him alone in the morgue all night?!”

In traditional Christian liturgy, the congregation sometimes affirms their faith together with the words, “Christ died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” We rush through it, unthinking. And we usually focus on the hopeful statements at the end. But the truth of that first statement is for me what really makes the morgue bearable. For the parents of the young man in the story above, resurrection was absolutely what they hoped for their son and for themselves one day. But that day felt impossibly far away. In that endless present moment, their son was dead. They were preparing to leave him, knowing that he would be going to the morgue. The good news in that moment, I think, is that God is fully present even in the morgue. In that cold room filled with autopsy tables and body bags, it is gospel enough to affirm, “Christ died.”

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