A day the with dead

Mor­tu­ary tech­ni­cian Garth Wright was brought up Chris­tian and stud­ied the­ol­ogy. Now he spends his days among the dead and they visit him in his dreams. He speaks with Ruby Nyika.

Sunday Star-Times - - FOCUS -

In the vis­it­ing room, Garth Wright will lay a colour­ful blan­ket over the ster­ile hos­pi­tal sheet that cov­ers a corpse. It sounds silly, he says, but it makes the person look warm and com­fort­able.

Be­fore fam­ily ar­rive at the Waikato Hos­pi­tal mor­tu­ary, he smooths any pain out of the face.

He leaves the cur­tains drawn and the door to the vis­it­ing room open to re­duce the shock for the vis­i­tors. He wel­comes them into the square lit­tle room and beck­ons them to sit next to the body. He says, ‘‘You can touch them, they’re clean,’’ and watches as they hold hands for the last time.

He is care­ful. If some­one has beau­ti­ful hair and he needs to per­form a post-mortem in­ci­sion on the head, he spends 10 min­utes part­ing it and ty­ing it into lit­tle pony­tails so no blood gets stuck in the hair.

When he takes a blood sam­ple or washes a body, he is gen­tle and talks to the corpse while he works. He re­minds him­self: This is some­body’s mum, dad, brother, or sis­ter. The body should look peace­ful. ‘‘But they are also def­i­nitely dead be­cause I also be­lieve that you do an in­jus­tice if you present some­one look­ing life­like. That’s not help­ful.’’

Wright wan­ders into the room where the bod­ies are stored. He wears white plas­tic clogs and blue hos­pi­tal scrubs. The door into the room is a pale, but­ter yel­low with a metal ‘‘17’’ perched above it.

The air smells faintly of chem­i­cals, if it smells at all. This is thanks to strong chlo­rine-based sani­tis­ers and aro­mather­apy packs. The smell has been harder to dis­guise today be­cause the hos­pi­tal’s morgue staff have been work­ing with a de­com­pos­ing body.

Corpses lie on cold metal trays and are cov­ered in plas­tic sheets, fully cov­ered apart from pale feet stick­ing out the end. Today there are three. De­spite what you might see in the movies, there are no toe tags. For iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, there’s a tag around the wrist or an­kle, and the shelf in the cool room will also be la­belled.

Through the next door is a pro­ce­dure room – the floor is sop­ping wet and sudsy, with a mop bucket in the cor­ner and tow­els strewn over the sinks. Rows of me­dieval-look­ing tools clut­ter a metal table.

A sin­is­ter line of knives is ar­ranged largest to small­est above the man­tel­piece, which is at­tached to the metal bench top. Along the man­tel are two cheer­ful red Cookie Time tubs be­ing used for stor­age.

The Waikato Dis­trict Health Board mor­tu­ary has been based on the hos­pi­tal grounds for 45 years. Bod­ies are brought through an en­trance­way framed by a Maori carv­ing bless­ing the dead.

Bod­ies go to the mor­tu­ary for post-mortem ex­am­i­na­tions to iden­tify the cause of death or to iden­tify the person. The ex­am­i­na­tions are per­formed by pathol­o­gists, as­sisted by mor­tu­ary tech­ni­cians. A pathol­o­gist writes a pro­vi­sional post-mortem re­port and sends that to the coroner to sign off be­fore the body is re­leased.

Be­yond the carv­ing, it be­comes a staff-only area.

Colour­ful paint­ings: moun­tains, po­hutakawa trees, flow­ers and paua, hang vivid against sal­low walls. Once you cross the red line on the lino floor, you en­ter a bio­haz­ard zone. Here, the bod­ies are weighed, mea­sured and washed. If police suspect a homi­cide, the body will be zi­plocked and se­curely stored down­stairs, ready to be trans­ferred to Auck­land for foren­sic ex­am­i­na­tion.

Next to the se­cure stor­age unit are shelves crammed with la­belled jars con­tain­ing pre­served hu­man tis­sue. The tis­sue is sliced and stud­ied for dis­ease and ill­nesses.

Wright has worked as a mor­tu­ary tech­ni­cian for the Waikato DHB for two years. Be­fore that, he was a fu­neral di­rec­tor for seven years. Both roles, for him, had a six­month de­sen­si­ti­sa­tion pe­riod.

Nowa­days, he doesn’t get shocked eas­ily. Some­times his wife must re­mind him how ‘‘freaky’’ and ‘‘gross’’ some of his work sto­ries can be.

Today a body that has un­der­gone three procedures and been stored in the mor­tu­ary for 12 weeks has fi­nally been iden­ti­fied. The man had been dead for some time be­fore he was dis­cov­ered. He was found de­com­pos­ing in his arm­chair, rid­dled with in­sects. Now iden­ti­fied and with any sus­pi­cion ruled out, he can be re­leased to his fam­ily.

There are masks to pro­tect work­ers from the smell when they work with a de­com­pos­ing body, but some pathol­o­gists in­sist on work­ing with­out so they can de­tect any tell­tale scents, such as sugar or al­co­hol, that might pro­vide clues to the cause of death. A strong stom­ach is vi­tal. ‘‘In one case, I had to have three show­ers in a day,’’ Wright says. ‘‘You don’t re­alise that your clothes and your hair and your skin ab­sorb the smell.’’

Wright never has a prob­lem eat­ing on his lunch break. How­ever, he finds he can no longer bring him­self to eat liver, which he used to en­joy.

For the past year and a half, Wright has spent two days a week in the Auck­land mor­tu­ary, which deals with more com­plex procedures and foren­sic cases.

An es­pe­cially tragic side of work­ing there is deal­ing with fe­tuses that did not come to full­term. The mor­tu­ary can in­ves­ti­gate the cause of the in­fant’s death if re­quested by fam­ily mem­bers or the au­thor­i­ties.

‘‘The techs from Auck­land are so awe­some at deal­ing with ba­bies,’’ he says ‘‘They’ll be sewing for an hour th­ese tiny stitches.’’

He re­mem­bers the bod­ies of two, sec­ond-trimester twins, there, two broth­ers – one big and one small.

‘‘They’d been put to­gether with a teddy and wrapped in a blan­ket, and that was so cool.

‘‘They re­spected them as some­one’s chil­dren, not like, that’s a fe­tus . . . I don’t like all that lan­guage. From the par­ents’ point of view, that’s a baby.’’

Wright sees his and the other staff mem­bers’ work as part of a big­ger pic­ture.

By helping to de­ter­mine the cause of death, they per­haps can con­trib­ute to pre­vent­ing fu­ture deaths. The mor­tu­ary also helps police with in­ves­ti­ga­tions – they can find ev­i­dence of dam­age to the body that is not vis­i­ble.

‘‘The rip­ple ef­fects can be fan­tas­tic,’’ he says. ‘‘The ques­tions have got to be asked.’’

As­sess­ing bod­ies from car crashes is har­row­ing. Lit­tle bits of glass and bone can get stuck in the tech­ni­cian’s la­tex gloves so that he must con­stantly change them.

It takes 4000 hours of work, a three-hour the­ory exam and 150 procedures signed off by a pathol­o­gist to be able to work un­su­per­vised as a mor­tu­ary tech­ni­cian. Wright has about five weeks un­til he has com­pleted his 4000 hours.

He does not have many friends. When he tells peo­ple what he does for a liv­ing, they fall into one of two camps: mor­bid cu­rios­ity or frosty dis­gust.

‘‘My job has driven, hon­estly, a lot of them away. Peo­ple get freaked out.’’

The usual ques­tions are ei­ther, what is the gross­est thing you have ever seen, or, who would want a job like that?

Wright was raised Chris­tian but is no longer re­li­gious.

‘‘I used to be real per­plexed by the big ques­tions, but now I don’t think a lot of them are an­swer­able. And I’m OK with that, but I do know that we are spir­i­tual be­ings.

‘‘From when I was small, my mum said I was al­ways spir­i­tual. My mum said if she was sick, my brother would be get­ting her pil­lows and I’d be out­side the door, like, pray­ing.’’

Wright moved to New Zealand from South Africa with his fam­ily 11 years ago. In South Africa, he com­pleted a bach­e­lor of the­ol­ogy. He then worked as a per­sonal trainer, a mas­sage ther­a­pist, and a se­cu­rity guard.

Con­trary to what many might think about the pro­fes­sion, Wright says he is not a ceme­tery-dwelling, Adams-Fam­ily weirdo who has al­ways been fas­ci­nated by death. His ca­reer sim­ply be­gan when he saw an ad­vert for a fu­neral di­rec­tor po­si­tion on Trade Me that he found ‘‘bizarrely in­ter­est­ing’’.

‘‘You know when you just send CVs and you don’t re­ally care if you get it or not?

‘‘I got the call and the owner said, meet me for cof­fee. I met her, we chat­ted half an hour. Then she said, do you want to start on Mon­day? And I was, like, yeah. And I loved it.’’

Be­com­ing a mor­tu­ary tech­ni­cian was a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion, but it also threw him into the deep end.

Now he sees wai­flike women who have been bat­tered to death by their part­ners, grand­par­ents who have been ne­glected by their fam­i­lies and chil­dren who have been knocked over by speed­ing ve­hi­cles.

‘‘You see women that are punched to death, and you’ve got to lit­er­ally count the frac­tures in their cheek bones.

‘‘You re­ally see some of the cru­elty. What we do to each other is ter­ri­ble, you know?’’

His work vis­its him in dreams. And it is the chil­dren who haunt him most.

‘‘In a way, it’s made me quite jaded and cyn­i­cal about the planet Earth. This is a hard place, you know. I see the worst of the worst.

‘‘That’s the grit­ti­ness of it, and that just knocks me. You don’t re­ally shake that.’’

He ex­er­cises most days to keep a clear head.

He rides his BMX along the Waikato River trails and finds com­fort in sim­ple things: a beau­ti­ful sun­set, the slow, rhyth­mic breath­ing of his 11-yearold son as he sleeps.

But there is no mir­a­cle cleans­ing rit­ual or med­i­ta­tion that lets him for­get the things he has seen.

For that, he is glad. The day he is able to for­get is the day he is too care­less for the job.

‘‘I carry a lot of that stuff with me. I’m pleased that it still knocks me.’’

‘‘In a way, the job has made me quite jaded and cyn­i­cal about the planet Earth. This is a hard place, you know. I see the worst of the worst. That’s the grit­ti­ness of it, and that just knocks me. You don’t re­ally shake that.’’ Garth Wright

MARK TAY­LOR / FAIR­FAX NZ

Garth Wright, seen here in the Waikato Hos­pi­tal mor­tu­ary, says when he starts for­get­ting about his work­ing day he will have be­comes too care­less for the job.

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