DR, photographs and writing, 2015 Installation shot, What do I need to do to make it ok? at Pump House Gallery, September-November 2015


When I was training to be a nurse, I learnt about ‘last offices.’ This is the work of caring for someone just after they have died. The first time I did ‘last offices’ I was working with a lovely, very supportive nurse. She said she liked to talk to the person while she worked. So as I got warm soapy water to wash with, the nurse told the woman who had just died, what we were doing, that we would comb her hair, remove medical IV equipment, wash her face and hands, her arms and shoulders and her feet and legs. She explained we would carefully straighten her fingers and limbs and take off her ring. We turned her onto her side and told her we were going to wash her back. Then we wrapped her in a sheet, folding the edges so they made a neat hem, pinning and tucking the cloth, so it would stay secure. The nurse told me that sometimes, family members like to help, that it can be a reassuring act, but more often it is the nurses who do it.

At the Service of Thanksgiving, to celebrate donors’ gifts, the microphone squeaked and buzzed. An attendant official in bright white shirt sorted it out. He had two bird tattoos poking out the top of his collar. I got distracted and thought about his tattoos, if he donated his body the birds would end up lying down. I thought about a woman in the Dissecting Room (DR) who had blue toenails. I thought about how the families of donors might be feeling, or what they missed about their relative.

Outside of the cathedral I bumped into someone I knew. Which surprised us both. Out of context, I didn’t recognize her immediately. Her mother had donated her body to the DR. It felt strange and real to realize I was connected to one of the bodies; that I had been near her mother for four months. Her sisters were there too and one wanted to hear all about the project, what I was mending and what my experience of the room had been. She commented that her mother would have liked someone ‘stitching and mending’ close by.

My experience of the DR was that it was a very kind place; the staff thoughtful and funny, always keeping the donors and their families in mind; the students hardworking and considerate; the room surprisingly cosy. My desk was at the end by the sinks. I was working mending holes and tears in clothes and bags of staff and students. We’d talk about their holes, what colour to mend them in. We also talked about how they felt learning anatomy on real bodies; stories about their own families; why they wanted to be doctors; how strong the smell of preserving fluid was but how you got used to it after a while.

Celia Pym