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Simon Winchester shares his humorous story about the time he worked as a mortuary assistant.
The victim of the first big mistake I ever made was a gentleman to whom I had never been properly introduced (and whose name I still do not know) but who was possessed of three singular qualities: he was alone in a room with me, he was without his trousers, and he was very, very dead.
Some context might be useful. It was the winter of 1962. I was eighteen years old and had taken a year off before going up to Oxford University. I also had a girlfriend far away in Montreal, and in the superheated enthusiasm of my puppy love, I had promised to visit her. The fact that I then lived in London and she three thousand miles away meant that fare money had to be amassed: I had to get a job, and one that paid well enough to allow me to get away to Canada as quickly as possible.
London had two evening papers back then, the News and the Standard. It was in the classified columns of one that I spied the advertisement: “Mortuary Assistant required,” it said. “Eleven pounds weekly.” The bar to entry was hardly Himalayan. “Some basic knowledge of human anatomy an advantage, though not essential. Telephone Mr. Utton, Whittington Hospital, Highgate.”
I knew Whittington, a great, gaunt Victorian redbrick workhouse of a building on a north-London hillside along the A1, one of the roads leading in and out of the capital. Karl Marx was buried in the cemetery around the corner. There was a lovely park up the hill.
The mortuary, if not perhaps especially congenial, certainly was well-fitted to my interests. I had just passed, and rather well, my A Level examinations in chemistry, physics and zoology, for the latter, under the invigilation of a small man named Mr. Hawthorne, I had dissected on the slab just about every imaginable type of creature, from amphioxus to zebra. Well, perhaps not zebra, but certainly very many mammals, including rabbits aplenty. And believing that a human is basically a very large rabbit, minus those ears and tail, prompted me to pick up the Bakelite telephone on our hall table and call Mr. Utton.
He seemed surprised. Pleased, too, for it turned out no one else had applied for his job. “Necrophobia,” he whispered darkly. “A puzzling failing,” I explained to him my sanguine notion of man’s comparability to a big rabbit; he laughed, and wondered aloud why more people didn’t think that way. An interview followed: Utton turned out to be tall and solid man with a clubfoot and a ready laugh. I told him that I was rather more interested in the money than the biology; he responded that in addition to wages, he paid a per-body bonus of four shillings, and that a quick worker could soon be in pretty decent funds. “All these London fogs,” he remarked. “They’re killers. Bodies just pile up here.”