Behind the Scenes: Life as a Body Removal Attendant

Behind the Scenes: Life as a Body Removal Attendant

One of the people on the care team that is not often considered is the body removal attendant. After everyone in the family has said good-bye to the deceased person and rituals and traditions have been observed, a body removal attendant comes to a home, care facility or hospital to take the person into their care. We were curious about their work, and wanted to understand their perspective on their role in providing after-death care and how they prepared for a call.

We invited Jon, a body removal attendant to speak with us to ask him questions to understand his perspective on the role of the body removal attendant. In this interview, Isabelle explores Jon’s understanding of his work, which is so intertwined with death, and whether his work has changed his outlook on living, dying or death.

(Transcript available below)

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This free webinar is open to everyone! PSWs, nurses and educators, or anyone else!

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Isabelle: Hello, my name is Isabelle Leslie. I’m a part of the team at Life and Death Matters, and we have something rather special for you today!

While PSWs and nurses normally care for people before they die, they may also care for the body just after a person dies, and will probably interact with the people who come to collect the body after someone has died. Today we have Jon here with us and he works as a body removal attendant. We brought him here today to ask him a few questions about his work as someone who picks up the body from the home, and as someone who’s comfortable with interacting with the dead. We thought perhaps getting his insight would be interesting and informative for you. So, let’s get started!

Hello, Jon! Thank you for joining us today.

Jon: Thank you for having me! I’m happy to reveal a little special part of my life for you guys.

Isabelle: Thank you. Would you be able to tell us just a couple things about yourself?

Jon: Well, I’m 22. I’m fairly young on the spectrum of workers here. I like nature. I do a lot of courses and natural restoration work, a lot of volunteering. This job is a part-time gig for me, kind of off season – it helps pay for my tuition doing schooling for ecological restoration.

Isabelle: Nice, nice. Could you tell us a little bit about what the job of a body removal attendant is like -like, the job description?

Jon: So, in short, we’re similar to “Medi-Van” where we do patient transport, except the only difference is that our patients are deceased. So, we transport members from either hospitals to the funeral homes or from their place of resting (their actual houses) to funeral homes.

Isabelle: What made you apply for the position in the first place?

Jon: I think I was always uncomfortable with how removed death is in our society nowadays because fear is just fear of the unknown most of the time. So, I was really wondering how could I gain more of a understanding of the cycle of life? And this popped up in my job suggestions on a job searching website one day. Originally, I kind of chuckled at it and then a week later I really seriously considered applying and then I ended up applying. Yeah.

Isabelle: Wow. Yeah. So, you had to think about it for a bit, but you were interested in it?

Jon: Yeah. I never planned to delve into the death industry! I had never had any interest in becoming a mortician. That seems to be (a lot of) the pipelines for other people in my work. They want to have some sort of “in” to working in the death industry. But no, I was just curious about it.

Isabelle: Wow, that’s really interesting. Do you remember your first shift, your first experience dealing with a deceased human? And could you tell us just how that felt the first few times?

Jon: Well, yeah. I came into this work knowing I had never seen a dead human being before, and I knew that it would be a new experience for me.

So, walking into that first call was equal parts… it was equally as terrifying as it was exciting, but mostly I was in a state of physical and mental preparedness – as prepared as I could be for seeing something that had been talked up so terrifyingly my whole life.

It genuinely was calm, and quiet, and there was nothing scary about it. I think as soon as I interacted with said deceased, it really made me understand that the soul has left the body.

Isabelle: So, did you find that even that first time you were pretty okay with the experience? You didn’t feel uncomfortable at all?

Jon: It was a little uncomfortable originally bringing myself to touch this person. Usually, we’re taught not to touch people without asking. But it’s a little hard to ask someone who has died if you’re able to touch them! So, I would say I didn’t feel uncomfortable, but my whole body was in a state of alertness. My nervous system was very activated, but emotionally and mentally I felt okay.

Isabelle: Okay, that’s interesting. And as you’ve grown more comfortable in this work, have you learned to do any rituals or anything to get yourself into the mind space of the work?

Jon: Yeah, I was advised by a couple of people before starting this work to figure out some sort of little ritual that I could perform before entering any sites where there are deceased. And what I’ve personally come up with is I individually grab the fingers on my left hand, and I just give them a little squeeze on the pad side. And over the months (I’ve been working this job for about a year and a half now) it’s become a good ritual for getting my body ready.

Isabelle: Nice. Now, I know in your profession that sometimes you’re not just picking up people who have died peacefully in their beds. Sometimes you’ve had to pick up people whose deaths have been sudden or somewhat traumatic. Do you feel differently? Do you have to prepare differently at all if you’re dealing with something that the people of the family didn’t prepare for beforehand?

Jon: I think there is a little bit of… I think there’s a bit of steeling of the mind if you know you’re going to be walking onto a scene with emotional family. But for the most part, I feel the same – I treat the bodies the same. It’s fairly easy to treat a body with respect and with kindness and move them with swiftness and diligence whether they’ve died suddenly or with natural causes.

Isabelle: Alright. And as we’re talking about family – as someone whose job it is to go and bring people into your care, obviously you interact with whoever is there, the family and the friends when they’re there and you arrive. What, in your experience, is the best way to interact with these people who have just experienced such a profound loss?

Jon: Well, interacting with family members and liaisons is really important in this job. And to boil it down to a couple of points, it’s really helpful if you are calm, speak at a mid-level tone, you inform them about what you’re going to do straight out and if they have any requests, if they want any more time, there’s absolutely no rush.

People in states of grief are emotionally compromised and they aren’t in very much of a decision-making mindset. So, keeping questions minimal to what really needs to be asked is really helpful for both getting answers and for them not having to really think very much.

Isabelle: Yeah, those are some good points.

Could you take us through a typical work call for you from the moment that you’re called to perhaps the drop-off, just so we can get an idea of what this job is like?

Jon: Usually, I get called and I have a water bottle and I make some tea for myself, and bring a little food just in case it runs long. I go pick up a second coworker. We head to wherever we need to be. We approach the house, talk to the family, and organize how we are going to bring this family member into our care. I’d say the actual process of interacting with family and the deceased within their home takes maybe 10 minutes. And then the rest is travel time. Travel time to the funeral home or wherever they’re being requested to be taken.

Isabelle: All right. I remember when we’ve spoken before, you mentioned you can be called at all hours of the day and/or night. So, when are you typically called to go and bring someone into your care? How many hours after death, or do you have a preference at all for when people call if it’s right away or not?

Jon: I think legally, if someone’s in hospice care at their home, you have to wait an hour post your time of death before calling whoever is going to come to pick them up. So usually, people call fairly immediately post-death, and that’s okay. But in my honest opinion, I think some people are a little too quick with it.

There’s been this fear that has grown within our society of death and this sanitary nature of it where once it happens, it must leave and be done with. And people used to hold 12-hour wakes or sit with the person overnight after their death to have some sort of letting go. And I think adopting some form of that in whatever capacity one might have, might be helpful for people in their grieving process.

There’s absolutely no rush. I’m not going to say keep them there for a day or two. That’s a little unrealistic, but-  

Isabelle: -It doesn’t have to be immediate.

Jon: Yeah, yeah. Take your time.

Isabelle: It’s not wrong to keep them there for a little bit to be able to say goodbye before you call.

Jon: Yeah.

Isabelle: Yeah. Alright, we’re coming kind of towards the end of our questions here.

So, for anyone listening we figured, what is something that you as a body removal attendant really appreciate that the care staff doing when you come to pick someone up in a care facility – What makes it easier or what makes it less difficult for you to do your job? 

Jon: I’m a real big fan of slow efficiency. So, if I can walk into a care facility, they will know that I am coming. If they can have the paperwork ready for me to sign off on, if there are any medical devices that need to be disconnected from the deceased, that’d be helpful. And most importantly, turning the bed alarm off.

Isabelle: I can imagine that that might be interesting to deal with as you’re moving the person around.

Jon: It always scares the pants off me! And I should be used to it by now, but I’m not.

Isabelle: Yeah. Alright. And our last question here today is, how has this work changed you or your outlook on life and on death?

Jon: I’m a lot less scared of dying because I know that my soul will not remain within my body, and I know that my body will be taken care of.

Isabelle: Nice. That’s a good last comment.

Jon: I’d say so.

Isabelle: So, thank you for sharing your experiences today, Jon. Well, actually, do you have any last words that you want to say at the very end here?

Jon: I think peace is brought by looking at hard things instead of avoiding them. I feel a lot more peaceful about death after doing this job. And yeah, it’s weird to say that I’m more comfortable with dying. No one’s really wanting to die, but it’s just something that’s going to happen, and we have to be comfortable with that, and make our peace with it.

But yeah, thank you for having me on. I hope this enlightens a couple of people.

Isabelle: Thank you for coming and speaking with us. It’s been wonderful!

Jon: Of course. Thanks so much.

2 Responses

  1. Interesting piece, you are right, this is a role thats often overlooked. The practice of a personal ritual before going into a home has value for many people who need to “ground’ themselves before moving into a situation.
    thanks for speaking with this thoughtful and reflective young person.


  2. Nunca pensamos en las personas que se encargan de los muertos y de lo importante que es su labor para poder continuar con este proceso tan doloroso. La dignificación de el cuerpo y su traslado a su ultima morada, requiere de gente sensible y comprometida que además le pueda brindar la confianza a la familia de que el cuerpo de su ser querido estará en buenas manos.

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Courtney Murrell is a PSW who works in hospice palliative care.

When she is not at work, she is spending time with her family, going on hikes or writing. Courtney is a lifelong learner and loves to share her passion for writing as a wellness practice.

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