Thought your clients were deadbeats? Michelle Williams, 36, is the mortuary manager at Cheltenham General Hospital in the U.K. We asked her about her new book, Down Among the Dead Men, and her job dissecting corpses
MC: Seriously, you work in a morgue?
MW: It wasn't a lifelong goal. I read about an open mortuary technician position in 2003 when I was a health-care assistant for the learning disabled. At 30, I found the idea of doing something offbeat appealing. In the interview, I sat in on a postmortem, and I was fascinated by how different it was.
MC: What exactly do you do?
MW: When a body arrives, we remove the organs with scalpels so a pathologist can do an autopsy. After cause of death is determined, we put the organs back. If the deceased is disfigured, we try to reconstruct the body.
MC: Is it like CSI?
MW: The actors in those shows never get a speck of blood on them. In reality, it's bloody. The smell is repulsive: rotten but sweet. After 10 minutes, your nose adjusts and the gag reflex subsides. But some days it takes me 12 hours and a couple of showers to get rid of the smell.
MC: Doesn't that get to you?
MW: There's a sense of fulfillment when we see what we've done for the family by making their loved ones look as close as possible to how they remember them.
MC: Most bizarre case?
MW: We had a deaf man who would take the same walk with his dog every day, and they had to cross over train tracks. This day, the train was late and the guy didn't hear it coming. The dog didn't even give him a nudge.
MC: Biggest mistake?
MW: I once had two dead women with the exact same name. I sent one to the wrong funeral home. Luckily, I caught my mistake before her family got there.
MC: Has this job made you fear death?
MW: I see the human body as purely anatomical. I understand why it works and why it stops working; my job isn't this sad, morbid experience. I even put a sign up on my office door that reads, "Don't mind me. I'm running out of places to hide the bodies." It usually gets a laugh.