I love going on removals. I love being the family’s first contact with the funeral home, the chance to make a good first impression, and since I’m also an embalmer, I know the importance of not wrapping the face too tightly in plastic or carelessly storing the body in the cooler without regard to positioning.
I like the challenge of seeing a body in an easy chair, or wedged into the space between the toilet and bathtub, or perhaps trapped under a pile of National Geographics. How am I going to get him out this time? What if he’s 300 lbs? What if I’m wearing silk? What if I have to call the fire department and have them remove a wall? What if his mom or wife is hysterical and will physically block me from leaving her house with the one she held most dear? (All of this has happened to me.)
I much prefer removals at the family’s home, or in a few select hospice houses, over hospitals and most nursing homes. This might be an understatement; more accurately, I will refuse the task of removing a body from the hospital unless there is no other help available. Hospital removals are a bureaucratic nightmare of ever-changing policies and a navigational nightmare for women, who are more likely than men to have spatial reasoning difficulties according to some science book.
At the hospital, you are usually directed to park at the “loading dock” or “service entrance.” This place will not be labeled as such. There will be one place to park, meaning you will have to wait until the linen truck and the garbage truck and the random other truck are done with jobs deigned more important than yours. Then you have to call security to be let in, unless the hospital wants you to call admitting, or call the charge nurse; both of whom will tell you to call security. When you finally reach security, they will tell you to park in the ambulance bay. Since two ambulances will be in the bay when you get there, security will then redirect you to the loading dock, where the recycling truck will be docked, loading.
So you go back to the funeral home and return to the hospital when they call again, angry that the removal was not done. The loading dock is mercifully empty. You call security, they tell you to call admitting, who tells you to call security. You get their voicemail. It’s full. You drive to the ER entrance and walk in to let admitting know you’re here. Admitting reminds you to park in the loading dock and call security. For the sake of brevity, let’s fast-forward an hour or so and pretend you are now leaving with the body, usually after the security guard has told you “Next time, just come straight to the loading dock and call us!”
The reason for all of this is because hospitals want to disguise the fact that people die there. The hospital is a place where you go to get well; a death equals failure. Dearly departed and sorely missed mothers, grandmothers and children are wheeled out with the garbage trucks and dirty laundry because otherwise, someone might see the person in a black suit pushing a gurney containing what is obviously a human form, although completely covered by a quilt or zipped into a thick fabric pouch. No one must know!
Most nursing homes are no different, although they are easier to navigate because they are smaller, and you will probably be handed off to fewer people on your quest to simply gain access to the building. Still, they do what they can to disguise the fact that the most natural thing in the world has happened. Many nurses ask if I can arrive late in the evening when everyone is in bed, even though the resident who has died may have been known and loved by other residents who will be denied a chance to say a last goodbye.
In contrast, one hospice house I remember had a very different approach to the death of a resident. I’d arrive, park in front of the building for all the world to see and bring in my gurney without having to wait until everyone is escorted (sometimes forcefully) to their rooms.
Residents who were awake and mobile had an opportunity to say goodbye to the one who died. All staff people stopped what they were doing and met in the room of the deceased while he was washed, dressed, and prayed over. [Note: this was not a religious institution.] When he was loaded on the gurney, he would be draped with a handmade quilt provided by the facility, but his face would be left uncovered. I would then slowly walk the gurney out of the building, accompanied by all the staff people, who were in no hurry. All their hands were on the gurney as well.
I’d stop at my van and open the door while the staff gathered around the deceased for a final prayer and a laying-on of the hands. At that time, his face would be covered with the quilt and he would be loaded into the van. I’d say my thank-yous to the staff and as I drove off, they would all still be standing in a circle in front of the building. Death was nothing to hide.
Can’t a nursing home do the same? Don’t isolate the living and grieving; involve them! Maybe John’s roommate would like to say goodbye. Maybe the janitor cared about Mary and he would appreciate being notified of her death so he could say a prayer over her. “We don’t want to traumatize the residents.” No, you don’t want to interact with the residents unless it’s billable! It’s too easy to dismiss them; to dismiss their feelings of love and loss as general old-people stuff for which you aren’t paid enough to care.
If hospitals could admit that death was a thing that happened, picking up bodies would be far simpler, and not just for the funeral home. If I were able to park near a main entrance, walk in and say who I am, then walk out with the body, the body would not sit in a morgue for days. The family would not have to wait those extra days for the viewing, nor would other families have to wait for their arrangements because the funeral director is waiting for the laundry truck to leave. Families would be given the option of waiting in the hospital with their loved one and walking out with me. Many are reluctant to leave the dead alone, and would find great comfort in being there during the transfer. I absolutely encourage people to follow me to the funeral home if they are present at the removal.
Death is far less scary and mysterious to those permitted to realize it’s happening.