Body
The morgue is very small, not much larger than my bedroom, with almost half the floor space taken up by the refrigerator. The refrigerator is divided into three vertical compartments, each with three rows of metal wheels bolted to the interior walls. Mrs. Hallman lies on a blanket-lined tray in the top slot of the right hand compartment. She is the only corpse in the morgue this morning.

Though I am only wearing thin pants and my porter's blouse, it is not chilly. The features television had taught me to expect --- poor lighting, polished stainless steel, the medical clutter --- are conspicuous in their absence. The only major piece of equipment in the room, other than the refrigerator, is a wheeled lifting platform. It looks somewhat like a mechanical hospital bed, though the frame has scissoring pneumatic pistons and the mattress is replaced by a set of steel rollers.

The undertaker unplugs this machine from the wall and aligns the end in front of the compartment with Mrs. Hallman. He presses a button on the control panel and the pistons hum, lifting the roller bed until it is level with her feet. He then slides the tray with the body onto the platform. As he lowers it, I maneuver the gurney beside the platform without being asked.

Mrs. Hallman is wrapped in a loose plastic sheet, bunched up and tied off just beneath her chin. Though the plastic is translucent it overlaps and folds back on itself where the sheet gathers together, forming a white starburst that obscures her face and upper body. She is old and somewhat obese. Other than that, she is featureless to me.

"I want to be sure this is who I came for," the undertaker says. He comes over beside me and reads a small card by her calf through the plastic shroud. "Yes, this is Mrs. Hallman."

"Would you like me to help move her?" I want to be helpful, I want to appear professional, and I am curious.

The undertaker looks up, eyebrows arched. "Why, thank you. Let's get this ready first."

He is speaking about the body bag on the gurney --- a burgundy sack made from thick cloth decorated with satin brocade stripes. In the sides of the bag are four holes, admitting belts anchored to the gurney frame. I undo the brass zipper and pull the corners of the bag back while the undertaker unbuckles the straps, letting them hang free.

"Could you take her ankles?" he asks, returning to the electric platform.

I grip Mrs. Hallman's ankles, feeling like I ought to apologize for treating her so. Her ankles are wrapped with layers of fat, and are neither warm nor cool. I think, poor Mrs. Hallman, a thought that immediately strikes me as vacuous.

We lift Mrs. Hallman and slide her along with her blanket onto the open sack. She is not hard to move. While the undertaker rolls the platform back by the wall, I tuck the bag around her head and toes.

"Wait a moment," he says. He comes back over. "This isn't our blanket." The corner of the blanket is stenciled with G.R.H.C., the initials of the hospital. Mrs. Hallman's smock is also the property of the hospital, but I don't raise the issue.

"Here. I'll roll her over, and you get the blanket," he says.

"Sure." I suspect the undertaker is used to people being sensitive about touching corpses. I do not wish to appear squeamish, but I am glad he hadn't asked me to roll the body instead.

The undertaker rolls Mrs. Hallman onto her side. "Here, push it underneath," he says. For a moment I am confused, but then I bunch the blanket up underneath her back.

"Here. Now, change sides." We exchange places and the undertaker rolls her body the other way. I notice a small tear in the plastic sheet as I pull the blanket free.

"Thank you." I stuff the blanket into the morgue's laundry hamper, then return to the body. The undertaker buckles the gurney's straps over her as I zip up the bag.

"Is this your first time?" he asks.

I nod.

"You've really never done this before?"

"No, never," I say.

The undertaker smiles, a warm and genuine smile. "You could do this for a living."

I'm not so sure what to do with the compliment. "Thanks," I say, imagining myself as an undertaker.

We steer the gurney to the back door. I hold it open for the undertaker and we wheel it out to his van. "Thank you," he says as he slides the body into the back. "You were very helpful."

"You're welcome."

"You're a volunteer?"

"Yes."

"Well, thank you again." He waves and drives off.

As I return to my station I pass a container of alcoholic gel on the wall. I wash my hands with it thoroughly and go upstairs. The rest of the day I catch myself washing my hands much more often than usual. Every time I do I wonder what Mrs. Hallman's face looks like.

--- 2006 Devin Carless
dccarles@gmail.com
Photograph Courtesy of
Matrix, West Sussex
England

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