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.
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
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.