Everybody has a story to tell. It might start with a rough childhood, or an event that left a lifelong impression; an influential mentor, or a span of adult years and a change of heart. However that tale opens, there’s always more to it. In “The Chick and the Dead: Life and Death Behind Mortuary Doors” by Carla Valentine, you’ll also see that every body has a story to tell, too.
At a time when most little girls are thinking of becoming princesses someday, Carla Valentine knew she wanted to work in a mortuary.
It wasn’t because she was fascinated with the macabre — although as a child, she did hold funerals for roadkill. No, she had witnessed the death of her beloved grandfather when she was small, and it led to questions that adults didn’t answer. A few years later, as the teenage babysitter for a UK mortician, she learned that the dead could offer the answers themselves.
Valentine tried to choose another career path, but not even college deterred her from working with the dead, which she decided was a satisfying way to make a living. Mid-university, she found a part-time position in a mortuary and began studying to become an assistant pathology technician, a job which, she explains, differs in responsibilities and legalities from that of many others who work in the death industry.
APTs in the United Kingdom are tasked with removing organs for donation, for instance. They assume some of the duties that North American funeral directors do, especially for the littlest bodies. They tend to work closer with families of the deceased, than with officers of the law.
The work of an APT is also nothing like it’s portrayed on TV.
There are no wriggly larvae on the floor of TV autopsy rooms. Pathologists on crime dramas wear minimal protective clothing, which can lead to unhappy circumstances in real life. Television crimes are solved in a neat hour, minus commercial time. And unlike all the king’s men, an APT can put suicidal Humpty together again.
The very first thing you need to know about “The Chick and the Dead” is that it’s filled with Britticisms. That’s likely not going to cause problems with enjoying it, but it does bear mentioning.
The second thing you need to know is that this probably isn’t anything you want to read with lunch. Valentine can tell a gruesome tale, complete with body fluids, unsavory bits, and unpleasant accidents, and she’s specific in her details.
Properly warned, you’re in for a good read: Valentine lets many of the questions you’ve had about various processes rest in peace, and she does it good-naturedly and with a touch of humor. Illustrative stories will help you to understand further, and she lends a personal touch to her book with both painful and poignant memories shared.
If you’re easy-queasy, beware. Without strong curiosity and a stronger stomach, you might not be able to handle what’s in here. Still, though it’s gutsy in the most literal sense, “The Chick and the Dead” is a great story told.