The Bookworm Sez

Book Review: Down Among the Dead Men

By Terri Schlichenmeyer
Real AspenDecember 15, 2010

Things are always tied up so neatly on TV.

Every week, it takes about 43 minutes for your favorite PIs and medical sleuths to find a body, take it to the morgue, determine the cause of death, and arrest the perp before the credits roll. And the best part is that on TV, nobody gets dirty or bloody. They barely even muss their hair.

“Down Among the Dead Men: A Year in the Life of a Mortuary Technician” by Michelle Williams c.2010, Soft Skull Press $14.95 / $15.25 Canada 262 pages

Buy it on Amazon

But as you’ll see in “Down Among the Dead Men” by Michelle Williams, the truth is messy, smelly, and sometimes ugly. Yet, caring for the recently deceased and learning why they expired could be “one of the most amazing jobs you can do.”

Feeling “bored” in her work as a health care assistant, Michelle Williams found herself scanning the intranet job board one day when she spotted an opening for an MTO – a Medical Technical Officer – at a Gloucestershire, England, hospital’s morgue. Despite having no experience at working with the dead, she applied.

“I like things that are different,” she said, “not run of the mill, and this job certainly seemed to fit that bill.”

She should’ve known just how “not run of the mill” the job would be when the interview consisted, in part, of witnessing an autopsy. Intrigued, Williams cautiously told her family and boyfriend that she wanted the job and that she thought she could cope with what she’d see. By the time she was hired, she was eager to get started.

When a suspicious death occurred in the community surrounding the hospital, the deceased was brought to “the body shop” for post-mortem. Anyone who expired in the hospital temporarily ended up there, too. Williams, her co-worker Graham, and her boss Clive were mostly concerned with the former.

Though she wasn’t uncomfortable with the dead, being an MTO took a little getting used to. Williams had to learn to cut into a body that wasn’t going to feel pain. She had to be taught to do a seamless “pick” to prepare for a P-M. She saw some bodies that disturbed her and a few that made her wish she’d never had breakfast. And she learned which funeral directors did the best job for bereaved families.

The last was information she’d personally need.

Sometimes gruesome, sometimes gracious, but always grabbing, “Down Among the Dead Men” is one of those books that will keep you up well into the night because it’s just that good. But beware: you may also be kept awake by the stories herein.

Author Michelle Williams went into her job wide-eyed and innocent, and her path from uncertain to certified makes for a charming tale, despite the occasional gore she divulges. There’s not a gratuitously grim story in the lot, but readers with weak stomachs will want to take note.

Try this book, though, and you’ll be rewarded with delightful Britishisms, quirky co-workers, great behind-the-scenes peeks, and a wonderful little memoir.

If you’re dying for something different (sorry, I couldn’t resist), here’s one to find. “Down Among the Dead Men” will have you tied up for hours.

comments: 1 Comment on "Book Review: Down Among the Dead Men"

DEBSUK8 – Sept. 08, 2012, at 5:24 a.m.

Id Lke to say well done to Michelle for her sucsess in this job and also thank you for writting such a fantastic read,I couldnt put the book down,It gives an in sight in to the world of the dead and in a light hearted way,Respect and many thanks for this book,Well worth picking up and reading!!

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