The D-Word

Image by: David Paul Ohmer (flickr)

Why is death such a difficult subject to talk about? From hospital mortuary to the grave, The D-Word explores our complex relationship with death through the perspective of those who deal with it on a daily basis.

Recently featured on Transom.org, The D-Word is an audio documentary I produced last summer on the subject of death. I’d urge you to visit Transom and explore their excellent site, but you can also listen to or download my piece below:

 View on PRX

The documentary was made in part for my MSc in Science Media Production and explores our relationship with death through the perspective of those who deal with it on a daily basis.

The piece experiments with a braided narrative weaving between interview and actuality recordings, taking the listener into a hospital mortuary, inside funeral homes and across a church yard to explore the concept of death from a number of personal perspectives.

This documentary is also a response to my own experience in dealing with the death of a close friend and you can read more about this in my article over at Transom.org.

In addition to this piece, I also produced two further shorts from the material recored for this documentary. These short audio vignettes experiment with form and sound to explore some of the themes touched upon by pathologist Dr Stuart Hamilton.

Adam as machine (more info)

Winters Rest (more info)

Audio tour: Hospital mortuary

Continuing with the rather morbid theme is another short audio piece based around a hospital mortuary, taken from my ongoing radio project which is probing contemporary attitudes to death.

What’s interesting is that mortuaries are notoriously hard to find within hospitals, they’re rarely signposted and often kept out of sight from patients and staff. It is almost as if death, through an act of denial, is banished from all walks of hospital life, forcing it underground where it remains out of sight and out of mind.

This is perhaps understandable when we consider the way in which modern medicine deals with death. So often is it concerned with prolonging life and keeping a patient alive that death has come to be seen as ‘failure’ – the inability to sustain life. As such death represents medicine’s limits, it reminds us of our own mortality and as such is buried away within the hospital. This isn’t just medicine’s fault, it’s a product of society and our own collective inability to accept death, we seem to live very much in denial, avoiding the ‘d’ word at all costs.

As a result those who work in hospital mortuaries take on an almost ghost like or gothic quality, whose activities remain in the shadows and unknown to the majority who dwell in the wards above. So what exactly goes on in a hospital mortuary? What do these places look like and who would we commonly meet in such a place?

It is perhaps only through the heavily stylised perspective of television and film that we gain any sort of insight into such places. Programmes such as CSI and Silent Witness are famous for their representation of pathology and post-mortem procedures, but they depict a world which is somewhat detached from the reality of such work. These programmes are slick, full of drama and entertaining to watch; they do little to challenge our relationship with death and present a very skewed image of those who work with the deceased. Instead they seem to maintain a common perception that death is something quite perverse, that mortuaries are dark gothic places and that pathologists run around solving murders (and of course that all bodies end up in the mortuary because of hideous murders).

Obviously these programmes shouldn’t to be re-written to reflect reality (probably wouldn’t make for very entertaining viewing), but it’s interesting none the less to look at how they deal with death and the contrast between fiction and reality.

What exactly goes on inside a hospital mortuary?

So the hospital mortuary remains a place largely unknown and unless you were unfortunate enough to visit one (dead or alive), it’s unlikely that you’d ever get a chance to peer inside. I certainly had no idea of what to expect when I recently visited the mortuary at Sunderland Royal Hospital. In the end it was perhaps not surprising to see just how normal mortuary life was, from sitting around drinking tea in a staff room to the usual ‘office banter’ being thrown about as the day went on. Pathologist Dr Stuart Hamilton was my guide for the day and he very kindly showed me round, you can listen to a brief audio tour below:

Adam as machine

Audio piece

I’m currently in the midst of producing a 30 minute radio piece on the subject of death. To be more specific, I’m exploring contemporary attitudes towards death and doing so through the perspective of those who deal with death on a daily basis.

Part of my project took me to the basement of the Royal Sunderland Hospital where I spent the day exploring it’s mortuary with pathologist Dr Stuart Hamilton. Recently, as I was listening back to his interview I begun to find myself fixated on a particular section, in which he discusses the way in which he views the human body. He describes his view of life as being very ‘mechanistic’ and as I listened to him talk about the body as ‘pumps’ and ‘shunts’ I was inspired to compose a short piece from his words.

Adam and Eve; the body electric. Image: Mike Reedy

As a biologist myself, I have always considered the human body to represent a beautiful feat of natural engineering. From the minute intricacies of the inner ear to the extent of the circulatory system, pulsating to the rhythm of a beating heart – the human body is living machine. Our consciousness and everything that makes us, ‘us’ is a product of this machinery and when the machine stops – so do we.

The title of this piece toys with the idea of Adam and Eve and how this throws up a very different view of the human body. However which ever view you take, both are unified in the fact that they find certain beauty in the human form.

Soundcloud’s audio compression has reduced the quality of the piece somewhat so please get in touch if you’d like a copy of the original file.