An interview with…a mortuary technician

At the Anatomical Science Department in the University of Manchester, medical and dental students learn about the human body through the study of the donated bodies of the deceased. By using bequeathed cadavers, students leave their studies with enriched anatomical knowledge, empathy, and surgical skills – making them better medical practitioners.

None of this would be possible without the skills and expertise of Stephen, Technical Manager for Human Anatomy and Surgical Skills, at the University of Manchester, and his team of technicians.

So, we went to have a chat to him, to find out how he and his team make it happen:

Stephen was a student of Geology at the University of Manchester. However, when he graduated he struggled to find work and didn’t know what to do.

"I graduated in the middle of a recession. I tried a teaching placement, but it wasn’t for me – I didn’t know how to manage the naughty kids! I didn’t want to go into the oil industry like a lot of my classmates, as the Piper Alpha disaster had happened only a few years ago. So, after being unemployed for 6 months, I attended a jobs workshop."

It was at the workshop that Stephen received the spark that would ignite his career – the tutor mentioned they had recently mentored a girl who went on to be an embalmer and his ears pricked up.

"I always liked the idea of becoming a funeral director. My father passed away when I was a child, and the funeral director we met was particularly kind."

Despite jobs being hard to come by in the funeral industry, a work placement as a trainee funeral director at the Co-Op Funeral service was found for Stephen – and he took to it like a duck to water.

"It was 23 miles from home, but I was fortunate enough to have a car. I really enjoyed it as well – I was good at being a Funeral Director."

Stephen secured a permanent position at the funeral home and became a qualified Funeral Director. His lifelong interest in science and anatomy, led him to be sponsored to study for The British Institute of Embalmers Diploma of Embalming at the North West School of Embalming. At the time, this was the only embalming qualification available in the UK and is internationally renowned.

One day, a colleague showed Stephen an advert for a job as a Trainee Anatomy Mortuary Technician which would allow Stephen to use his embalming skills and pursue his interest of anatomy. So, Stephen applied, and secured the position, and seven years later, when his predecessor retired, he took over the management of the lab.

Which skills do you need to be a mortuary technician?

Practical Application

“At school, I was a bit of a square. I was one of the few kids that really enjoyed school, I enjoyed learning and putting things into practice – dissecting in biology and doing experiments in chemistry and physics.”

“Now I get to do what I loved at school. There are loads of different processes I need to conduct to showcase different parts of the human body. I create biological stains – which is the application of dye to cells, so they can be better seen under a microscope; ‘creating skeletal and tissue displays so students can see all the parts that make up the human body.

“We also assess the bodies and create tailored chemical solutions which will preserve tissue for as long as possible. They consist of a lot of alcohol, methylated spirits, Formaldehyde - the preserving agent, and Phenol - an anti-fungal agent.”

Attention to Detail

"You must be incredibly organised, but that comes with experience. Like with any job you’ve got to learn. You become familiar with the paperwork, start to learn the processes, why you do those processes – and then you gain a fundamental understanding. It’s not quite as boring once you understand why you’re doing it and how it’s as integral to the process as embalming the person.”

Stephen and his team must make sure that they are adhering to the Human Tissues Act 2004 and all current health and safety regulations to keep donated bodies on site.

“If the necessarily paperwork wasn’t completed, quite simply we would be shut down and wouldn’t be able to use cadavers to teach anatomy to medical and dental students. At any given moment, we need to identify from which cadaver a specimen has come from and match a cadaver to a bequeathal form to prove consent was given while the person was alive.”

Strong communication skills

On meeting Stephen, it’s clear that he is a strong communicator and great with people. As it turns out, people skills and management are key to his work.

“In my current role, I don’t need to go to family homes anymore, but we still have a lot of involvement with people’s families and potential donors.”

People often approach their local university to ask if they can donate their bodies ‘to science’ and so Stephen talks them through the process, what their brave decision means in practice, and provides them with the necessary paperwork. When the time comes, he does the same with their loved ones.

“I have always been good with people – having had a Saturday job initially in a shop as a child helped. Also, I think I’m just lucky – I just took to being able to talk to the bereaved, which I had to do as a Funeral Director and I must do here. On a daily basis, we talk to the bereaved on the telephone. I like to articulate to them what’s going to happen, what they should expect, and how long the process is going to take, so that they know what to expect.”

“Bestowing a body to anatomical study is often a lifetime’s wish, so families are often supportive and proud when it comes for the [body] to be donated.  A lady who recently donated her body originally filled out her forms in 1953!”

“It is always essential that we treat our body donors and their relatives and friends as we would wish for ourselves and our loved ones, do this and we won’t go far wrong.”



Stephen’s typical daily routine

  • 06:30 am: "Get into the office: if I’m going to get a call from the undertakers to say there has been a death during the night, it’s often first thing in the morning, because they’re early birds as well. There are various jobs I do In the morning; for instance, I have to empty all the clinical waste bins as the cleaners aren’t allowed to do that, and the ordinary technicians don’t start until 08:30 am. It also gives me a chance to catch up on emails and stop them from piling up."
  • 09:30 am: "We contact the family to find out where Mum or Dad are resting. We then call the hospital or GP Surgery to establish cause of death (if it’s caused by something transmissible we wouldn’t be able to accept the body.)" 
  • 11:00 am: "We would then talk to the families and say’ we have made all of our enquiries; is it still your wish that the bequeathal goes ahead?’ The answer is almost always yes. We will explain to the family that they need to register the death and deliver the Registrar’s documentation to the place where their relative is resting. We then to collect the person from the hospital or nursing home, or wherever they are resting and then bring them back to the university."
  • 14:00 pm: "We have a ‘bequeathal check-list’ that we need to go through, but we know how to obtain the information we need in a sensitive way. Once we have ascertained that the body is suitable and the family would like to go ahead, we will confirm with the family and are able to say ‘We are pleased to say that we would very much like to accept [your mother] into the University of Manchester for medical science.”
  • 15:30 pm: "While I start early, I go home early as well. This is a much more conventional life in comparison to that of a Funeral Director, 9-5, Monday to Friday, not on call. As a teaching technician, we have restrictions as to when we go on holiday – it has to be out of term time."
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