These days, the underground world of mortuary workers has slipped into the light. Forensics are cool. But it wasn’t always this way. The job of morgue assistant was traditionally thrown to the least employable members of society – the ones who would do the jobs that others wouldn’t do, because their circumstances forced them into it. Ex-prisoners were a traditional source of labour for the mortuary: the wages were low, but the old cons could not expect any better. They were off the streets and purposefully put to work.
In the 1980’s and early 90’s, the creed of greed and unregulated markets gained momentum under the Conservative government of the time. Thatcherism and monetarism, promulgated by Milton Friedman, adviser to Ronald Reagan, were to be the guiding lights of the economy. It was OK to live for profit, however many losers got wasted on the way to gain. It was OK to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Everything was for sale, including body parts, living or dead. It is commonplace now to think of bodies as commodities: bodies for sale in the sex trade, transgendered and otherwise modified bodies, and the trade in body parts to replace the clapped out organs of those who can afford to pay for new ones. Private contracts are currently up for auction in the National Health Service. But this is a public, nationally owned service, funded by taxpayers via National Insurance since 1948 and now, additionally, by other public taxes, such as VAT.
Into the world of the National Health mortuary ripe for privatization comes Louise Moon, a whistle-blowing political researcher framed by her former lover and boss – the junior health minister. Like every morgue assistant, she quickly becomes inured to the sights and smells of dead bodies. There are good days and bad days and endless days of tedium. Then the body of the minister, Eddie Kroneberg is wheeled into the morgue, where he becomes the victim of his own corruption. His body is stolen by an anarchist for use in an art installation protesting against the commercialization of death, and Louise steals his sectioned heart because she wants to find his corpse and bury it with him.
Artists have always used the dead as subjects for their work. Leonardo drew the corpses he dissected. Rembrandt painted The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. The self-styled ‘social investigator’ and painter, Robert Lenkiewicz embalmed and hid the body of an old tramp, a subject of his portraits, in a studio drawer. This caused a storm of protests from the Plymouth authorities until it transpired that there is no legal title to a dead body. No one owns a corpse. The only book they could throw at Lenkiewicz in the 1980’s was violation of public health and hygiene regulations. Post-modern anatomist, Gunther von Hagens, sensationally displays arrangements of plastinated bodies and body parts in his tedious and vulgar art exhibitions. Channel 4 ran a series about anatomy, featuring post mortem examinations carried out by hospital pathologists. Death as performance is trending. Without a moral or religious compass to respect the dead and let them rest, death, like everything else, is just another market. (Anne Morgellyn 11/12/12)
‘Remains of the Dead’ by Anne Morgellyn is available on Amazon.com