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'First a 20p popped out, and when we opened the stomach more came out'

PUBLISHED: 12:00 02 November 2014 | UPDATED: 15:34 03 November 2014

Jan Gibson, in her mortuary's post mortem room (photo: Arnaud Stephenson)

Jan Gibson, in her mortuary's post mortem room (photo: Arnaud Stephenson)

Archant

As someone who sees more than 3,000 corpses a year, death rarely surprises mortuary worker Jan Gibson - but the sight of a dead body packed with pennies is a memory that will linger.

One of the storage fridges at the Queen's Hospital mortuary (photo: Arnaud Stephenson)One of the storage fridges at the Queen's Hospital mortuary (photo: Arnaud Stephenson)

“We were dissecting him with a pathologist. First a 20p popped out, and when we opened the stomach more came out. By the end we had a bag full of money!”

Altogether £3 in 1p and 20p coins was removed from the body of the elderly man, in what Jan describes as probably the strangest moment of her 40-year career.

The 59-year-old from Wickford, Essex, is a mortuary manager, meaning she oversees the running of the basement unit at Queen’s Hospital, Rom Valley Way.

It is the designated mortuary for east London, and staff carry out about 700 post-mortems a year – sometimes as many as eight a day.

Morutary workers (L-R) Maria Knight, Gary Bennett and Jan Gibson (photo: Arnaud Stephenson)Morutary workers (L-R) Maria Knight, Gary Bennett and Jan Gibson (photo: Arnaud Stephenson)

It’s a vocation that regularly exposes Jan to the full harrowing extent of human mortality – but she is not the least bit morbid.

“I think we’re all quite happy. You get the sort of mentality that life’s too short to worry about things.

“Sometimes it can be hard – it may play on your mind.

“But we never go home with it because we can talk about it.”

The post mortem room at Queen's Hospital mortuary (photo: Arnaud Stephenson)The post mortem room at Queen's Hospital mortuary (photo: Arnaud Stephenson)

Jan works with three other members of the staff in the mortuary. Pathologists from upstairs lead post-mortems but play little role in the day-to-day running.

Despite the obvious connotations attached to those working with death, the team seems thoroughly normal – except perhaps for the job title: they’re anatomical pathology technologists.

In fact, after the initial realisation that names on the large industrial fridges belong to the recently deceased, the environment – notwithstanding the pungent smell of bleach –starts to feel like a regular workplace.

At one point, Jan has to interrupt our interview to take a call from her son, and at another, she regales us with the story of the cash-packed man.

An average day in the mortuary

n Works begins at 8am, and post-mortems normally take place in the morning.

n An average of four are conducted daily – the post-mortem room has the facilities for that number to take place simultaneously. But sometimes as many as eight will be done in a morning.

n After that there’s the clean-up operation, which is nothing if not industrial, with large bottles of bleach everywhere and exactingly high standards of cleanliness expected.

n Visiting hours tend to be later in the day, with the friends and family of loved ones using a different, far less clinical, access route, and a tastefully decorated, non-denominational room for viewings.

What did they do with the money? “We gave it back to the family because it was his money!” she replies to laughter.

You sense that, in spite of everything, the mortuary is an enjoyable and rewarding place to work.

It’s also pretty prestigious, having been highly rated in recent official inspections, which commended its cleanliness, good practice and high standard of care for the deceased.

These are among the many reasons the Queen’s unit is east London’s designated disaster mortuary in case of a catastrophe such as a train crash or a flu pandemic, known in the business as an “excess death situation” – a situation Jan knows all too well.

In the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in 2005, she helped with the building of a temporary mortuary in central London, an experience she describes as the “pinnacle of her career”.

Death is Jan’s profession, and it’s something she’s evidently very accomplished at. But there’s nothing deathly about her or her mortuary - both are thoroughly alive.

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