Dead-hard study, then a very final exam

Mortuary science finds the dead in good spirit, discovers Christopher Bigsby

May 14, 2015

When Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman, a number of his backers asked him to change the title, regarding the word “death” as a bit of a downer for Broadway. Not so long ago some academics declared “the death of the novel”, doing their best to ensure it by hammering theory, like rusty nails, into its coffin. Understandably, novelists demurred. The fact is that we are wary of the very word. For John Clare, death was the great physician, curing all pain; for most of us it is a full stop where we would prefer a comma.


There is a website called The Death Clock. You enter your age, weight, body mass index, disposition, and it tells you when you are going to die. When I tried it, a sign came up saying, “I’m sorry. Your time has expired.” It turns out I died on 8 April of this year. I am not, however, addressing you from the other side, as Arthur Conan Doyle, who after all resurrected Sherlock Holmes, believed to be entirely possible, although to date no one has heard from him. I discovered that if I changed the disposition setting to “optimistic” rather than “normal”, I have until 24 May 2038.

Death studies sits uneasily in British academe. You can’t do much outreach or have much impact under six feet of soil

Nonetheless, every year a letter arrives wishing me happy birthday and asking if I have made arrangements for my funeral. There is even a free pen on offer if I respond immediately, presumably so that I can write my will. The word “immediately” suggests that they know something I don’t, and I am half persuaded they do. One man who received an email implying that he would benefit from a penis extension sued because he felt that they had inside knowledge and that their offer was belittling, if you will excuse the word.

But what, you may be asking, do universities make of death? The US may be the euphemism capital of the world, but it seems curiously committed to “the death industry”. Apparently it is boom time for mortuary science. There are some 60 programmes. According to the University of Minnesota, “the market for funeral directors at the present time is good”, although whether this is good news for the rest of us I’m not sure. The reputation of the profession was somewhat tarnished, however, when it emerged that corrupt morticians had sold Alistair Cooke’s bones for $11,000 for use in transplant operations and dental fillings, replacing them with plastic piping. But if being a funeral director doesn’t appeal, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, under “Similar Occupations”, lists Human Resources Managers.

Mortuary science, a “study of deceased human bodies”, has the advantage of being interdisciplinary, including the subjects of thanatochemistry and “funeral merchandising”. Miami Dade College offers “hands on” experience in embalming, while for those doubtful of the hands on bit, the University of Maryland offers an online course in “Death, Dying and Mourning”. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, somewhat ambiguously, has “a higher than average passage rate”. Equally ambiguously, Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science offers “real life scenario simulations”, while the University of Cincinnati offers a “pre-mortuary science” course, presumably for the nearly dead. Cyprus College, meanwhile, boasts “a diverse ethnic student body”, which sounds like an equal opportunity corpse. The downside? For some reason mortuary science students reportedly associate with fellow mortuary science students only.

Not that there isn’t fun to be had. Caitlin Doughty, graduate of a mortuary science college, has a web series called Ask a Mortician. She answers such questions as “Can you bake human remains into a chocolate cake?” The answer is “yes”, as long as you like your chocolate cakes gritty. “Can you tattoo a dead body?” You can try, but the lasting effects are not good. If you want a memento, Caitlin suggests the traditional lock of hair, even from the living, because “you never know”.

Death studies sits uneasily in British academe. You can’t do much outreach or have much impact under six feet of soil. There is a notice in Cambridge, however, that reads: “KEEP CLEAR 24 HOUR A DAY FUNERALS”, so either they like long ceremonies or students there die of entitlement in the early hours.

The University of Bath boasts the country’s only Centre for Death and Society, and one of its projects is the recycling of heat from crematoria to heat houses, worth thinking of as you turn up the thermostat. A previous research topic was “Jade Goody: death educator and angel”. Other projects, somewhat alarmingly given the current obsession with zombies, include “Encountering Corpses” and “The Presence of the Dead in Society”.

The University of Chester killed off its mortuary science course, which, logically enough, would “unfortunately now not be running”. The National Careers Service warns that as an embalmer you will spend most of your day on your feet, which at least gives you an edge on your subjects. The Salisbury College of Funeral Sciences and Embalmers course takes two years and 30 bodies. The college’s principal has explained that most men wouldn’t be seen dead in the standard burial gowns, qualifications for an embalmer being a handful of GCSEs and, evidently, a sense of humour. Apparently people like to slip peppermints into the pocket of the deceased, presumably so their breath will be fresh for St Peter.

In an interview with Times Higher Education last year, Carla Valentine explained that she had wanted to work in a mortuary since she was eight. Given that the whiff of formaldehyde may defeat even peppermints, she has created a social network for death professionals called Dead Meet. She now works at Barts Pathology Museum, part of Queen Mary University of London, and the place where Sherlock Holmes first met Dr Watson. The purpose of the museum is “to bring pathology alive”. It’s the way they tell them.

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