I want to see a dead body.
May 13, 2011 1:09 PM   Subscribe

I'm working as a producer in New York on a mid-scale documentary that is exploring the way we as a culture relate to death. I was having breakfast this morning with the director when we both realised that neither of us has actually ever been in a room with a dead body. Now, I realise that this is an incredibly odd question, but I'm really not sure how to go about arranging it. We would like to see a dead body before it has been attended by funeral directors and if possible to film our reactions to it while in the room, but more importantly have the experience of seeing one and filming our expectations and reactions. I'm assuming I can't just ring up the NYC morgue and ask. Anyone have any ideas about the best and most respectful way to do this?
posted by rudhraigh to Human Relations (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Nothing ventured nothing gained. Call up the morgue and carefully explain what your motivation is. Then ask if they could help you out. In the event the answer is no, go on to any funeral homes in your area. Again (in the case of funeral homes don't denigrate their profession) explain what you are trying to achieve and ask. They can only say no or yes.
posted by Old Geezer at 1:15 PM on May 13, 2011

If you haven't read Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers I highly recommend it. First of all, it's super-entertaining. Second of all, it seems highly relevant to what you are doing. Third of all she (the author) had exactly the same needs as you, and managed to get some very inside peaks into that world.
posted by Phredward at 1:22 PM on May 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've had that experience and honestly it's not that different from being in a room with a dead body that's been embalmed.
In my case I was around ten years old and the dead person was a close relative, dead in her own bed.

Of course ymmv depending on how the person died....she'd had a heart attack and didn't look gruesome, just mottly.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:27 PM on May 13, 2011

Why would it be significant for you to be in the proximity of the dead body of someone you never even knew? And if you plan to film your reactions, doesn't that create the possibility that you'll just be conveying what you suspect to be the appropriate reactions?
posted by clockzero at 1:44 PM on May 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Tell them you're working on a piece about the real life of coroners. Never mention that your real aim is to see a dead body. Hang out with the coroners for a while and you'll see a dead body.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:46 PM on May 13, 2011

Call up a funeral home, explain your purpose, and ask if you can watch a body being prepared. Alternatively, call up a nearby medical school. If the person has already donated their body, it might be more likely that you would be allowed to view it for this purpose. I would *not* lie in order to arrange a viewing, unless you want to screw things up for everyone after you who might need to see a body.
posted by epj at 1:51 PM on May 13, 2011

I would stick to calling the morgue. I suspect that a funeral home, at least one with any ethics (and a good attorney), is not going to allow this without the permission of the family, and I don't think you want to go there.

And, I agree, filming YOUR reactions to it sets in motion a bias that would remove a lot of credibility to your project.
posted by tomswift at 1:55 PM on May 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Alternatively, call up a nearby medical school. If the person has already donated their body, it might be more likely that you would be allowed to view it for this purpose.

Not going to happen. Medical schools strictly prohibit photographing cadavers for obvious reasons of respect for the people who have donated their bodies, so the chances of the med school OK'ing a cool little show-and-tell with these filmmakers is zero.
posted by jayder at 1:55 PM on May 13, 2011

Seconding the idea of shadowing the coroner with cameras. It's not a lie or a deceptive cover. Of course you want to see bodies. If you didn't you would be shadowing the registrar of wills. And understanding his job, and learning about his world, is integral to the broader subject you're covering anyway. Just don't go in saying "Can I see a body." That sounds goulish and rubbernecky and disrespectful, and really doesn't enough credit to the real purpose of your project.

You might also trying a PM to user coldchef, if he doesn't show up soon.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 2:09 PM on May 13, 2011

Given the sensitive nature of this topic, I wouldn't lie about why you want to do it; people will flip outif they find you lied, and there will be lots if ways for them to find out.

Next, I'd call a med school. Depending on whether you want to film the body itself, as opposed to your own reaction to it, they may be more or less open to it. But even if you can't film a body it might give you the next best thing --- a freshmen anatomy class, e.g. A couple dozen people who will be going through the exact experience you want to film who might be useful interview subjects. In fact, thinking about it you might do best to look for specific abatomy professors --- you can almost always find the personal email address of academics on their university web page, and it'll be easier to convince a prof of your good intentions and have him go to bat for you with the PR folks than to start with them and have to break through the CYA instincts of an institution before you get near a body.
posted by Diablevert at 2:16 PM on May 13, 2011

Why not include this as part of your doc, or part of the research for you doc? And just call up the coroner/morgue or a funeral home and tell them straight up what you're working on? If you want to go the "tell them you want to shadow coroners" route, well, that's footage you'll have for the doc (I'd assume that any documentary about the culture of death in the US would probably need to talk to some coroners, anyway).

This is also a good way to frame the "we want to film our reaction" concept - film everything, but BE REAL. If you've got cameras rolling and you're in a morgue, and it feels just like being in any slightly chilly room, just say so.

Basically, what I'm saying here is view this as a part of your documentary production process. Rely on the same skills you will need to draw on to get interviews and footage for your documentary.
posted by Sara C. at 3:06 PM on May 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've worked on films where we shot in a city morgue--it's not that hard to arrange. You could also try funeral homes, and see if you can find a willing family. Also, what about the organizations that bury unclaimed bodies, like on Hart Island.
And never assume you can't get access.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:58 PM on May 13, 2011

I'm a nursing student, and I just saw my first death and dead body a few weeks ago. I'm not so sure what you think your reaction might be, but for me, it wouldn't have been anything terribly interesting to put on film. Living it was interesting, but watching medical professionals prepare a body for transport wasn't particularly fascinating or ghoulish. I'd describe my reaction as solemn, professional, and respectful. I'd hope most people's reactions in a similar context would be the same.

What I really wanted to say is that I don't think you'd have much luck at a medical school. Any time the internet or cell phones or anything like that was mentioned during our orientation, the faculty pretty much told us we'd be kicked out of school if we ever took any pictures of a person or part of a person (And that happens. Some nursing school students were recently kicked out of school for posting pictures of a patient's placenta on Facebook). Please don't get any med students in trouble by tricking them into getting you access to a dead body for your film. (I don't think you would do that, but be careful.)

Hospitals have media coordinators. It might be possible to call and find out what the protocol for this type of filming would be. They might be able to steer you in the right direction even if you aren't able to film at a hospital.
posted by alittlecloser at 4:03 PM on May 13, 2011

I have seen four dead bodies in my life (so far) and had physical contact with three of them both before and after death. Three were in beds, one was burning in the drivers seat of a car.

My reactions to each was very different. My reactions were not what I expected. I do not know what it would have looked like on film, but probably not as I remembered it. I think that they were moments overwhelmed by subjectivity, which doesn't really make much sense.

It sounds like an interesting project. Feel free to message me if you would like to talk.
posted by Skrubly at 4:50 PM on May 13, 2011

I think that no matter how respectful you try to be, the surviving family members will not take kindly to this request during their time of grief. You may have some luck contacting someone in charge of a body farm. The closest ones to you are in Tennessee and North Carolina.
posted by Houstonian at 5:11 PM on May 13, 2011

Whilst I do understand your interest, there isn't really anything that interesting/weird about being in the same room as a (relatively intact) corpse. At that point, they're really just a hunk of human-shaped meat. Depending on where they are in the decomposition process, the smell is probably the most striking and memorable thing.

For a corpse that has suffered some significant trauma, I've found that your body can have a pretty visceral reaction to it, which can be curiously divorced from your intellectual reaction to it. Observing an autopsy (at close range) can have pretty much the same effect. So if you're interested in your own reaction, you probably want to see something more than an intact corpse.

I think the idea of hanging around with a coroner (or forensic pathology service, depending on who attends and processes deaths in your jurisdiction), or a police homicide or forensic squad, would be your best bet. I know that in my part of the world if you wanted to film a deceased person you accessed through the coronial service, you'd have to jump through many and varied legal hoops, including (I imagine) getting the permission from the family of the deceased. Going through the police might be easier.
posted by damonism at 7:22 PM on May 13, 2011

You're doubtless wise not wanting to be completely uninformed about what you're trying to film. I once knew someone who had trained in his family's business; although he actually had a very different career, he was a licensed funeral director. That's the the kind of guy you ought to talk to.

First thing my friend told me was how to talk about dead people. He told a lot of stories of his experiences but never spoke other than respectfully about his family's business or their clients. It might help to have the perspective of somebody like that in order to avoid obvious pitfalls. Why not Call around and see if you can find a funeral director to talk to. Don't ask about filming a body; ask about cultural research background information. I can't imagine anybody who would know more about what to expect when someone sees a body for the first time. If you know what you're looking for, it will be easier to find it. Good luck.
posted by Anitanola at 1:07 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the input, we're not really sure if we're actually going to break the fourth wall so speak and put this in the documentary itself, but it's something we really think is important to sort out and have filmed. We will be looking to interview medical professionals at some stage but that's much further down the line and we just thought it was important that we got this part out of the way as soon as possible in order to allow us to have some personal connection to the subject matter of the doc when we actually start filming.

I'lll talk to the director and see what his take is on all of this. Thanks again.
posted by rudhraigh at 5:44 PM on May 15, 2011

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