I wonâ€™t lie; zipping dead people up into body bags never fails to creep me out. I know they are dead because a physician has to come to the patientâ€™s bedside to declare them dead â€œTime of death 0200.â€ It doesnâ€™t matter if they died an hour ago; they arenâ€™t dead till a physician says theyâ€™re dead. Still, itâ€™s that final step of placing someone in the dark, alone that gives me pause.
There is the family to notify if they are not present, and then there is a lot of paperwork to do.
As a nurse working the night shift, I always tried to take a little extra time with the people who died on my shift. Why do they call it the graveyard shift?
So the family usually comes up to the hospital and while they are on their way we take out all the oxygen tubes and I.V. lines and wash the body, combing the hair and tucking in all the sheets. There is nothing to be done sometimes for the gaping mouth or the eyes that wonâ€™t close, it just happens, but we try to tidy up the room and remove any medical paraphernalia.
After the family has said their goodbyes, they leave, and my job begins, the body bagging.
I ask another nurse to help and together we roll the patient back and forth, tucking the bag underneath, making sure the body is centered well. She leaves and I close the door.
The smell of the vinyl is so artificial, almost like new doll smell, that it seems incongruous in this setting. I take my stethoscope from around my neck and gently place the bell on the patientâ€™s chest. Holding it there I hear an occasional gurgle of bodily fluids shifting, but no heartbeat.
I knew that, the doctor declared him dead, heâ€™s cold and grey, but still, itâ€™s that last moment before zipping the bag up over the personâ€™s face that my own claustrophobia kicks in and I must compulsively check one last time.
This must have happened in days gone by. I imagine the settlers out West, wrapping up the dead in muslin and just before doing so someone says â€œWait!â€ An ear to the chest and a hush around the room while someone listens one more time. Or how about the mummies? Did someone check one more time before that strip of cloth got wrapped around the face of the dead relative? Wait, they are the ones who pulled peopleâ€™s brains out of their nose with a crochet hook right? Well, if the person assigned to the crochet hook has even a touch of OCD, she may well be taking a minute to tap on the deceasedâ€™s eyelids or something just to be extra sure. Well, you get my drift, I canâ€™t be the only one who has to double check a thing like that can I?
Just before I zip the patient into the darkness of the black vinyl bag I always quietly sing a little goodbye song. Iâ€™m not a great vocalist, but it seems like a little ceremony is proper and I guess I try to treat them like a person, albeit a dead person, till the very end. When Iâ€™m done I say God speed, and I zip the bag closed to the top of the head.
I press the elevator button for the basement and itâ€™s a long slow ride to the morgue where we say our goodbyes.