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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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The unexpected dignity of morgues

A darkened morgue room, with a cremation oven on the left, a chequered black and white floor, pale and weak white light, and cold storage vaults on the right.

Content warning: this piece contains descriptions of the mortuary process.

Morgues. All I have to do is write the word and it evokes a reaction. These places are steeped in our fundamental fears and preoccupations with death, and those fears and preoccupations are preyed upon by entertainment and amped up for horrors or police dramas. Chances are, youve never been in a morgue, but I bet you have an idea of what one looks like.

Ive been thinking about morgues this week because Ive been in a couple and they made a strong impression on me. Theyre not real, theyre in games, and the games are very much based around them.

The Mortuary Assistant Ive been working up the courage to play all week. Its exactly what I feared a game like this would be: a horror. Im a young lady whos working a new morgue job when Im locked in one night by my boss and told theres a demon on the loose, and I dont have to wait long before things get creepy and weird.

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Zoe takes Ian through a shift in The Mortuary Assistant.

Not that I hadnt already freaked out seeing a cadaver on the table long before that. And then again when I had to give it the full treatment. Its a gruesome job and the game delights in every step of it: pushing pins into gums so you can sew the jaw and mouth shut; cutting open the neck to put tubes in, and then pumping out the blood and replacing it with embalming fluid; emptying all the fluid from organs, and so on. Great backdrop for some scares, right?

But what I didnt expect to feel from it, and which definitely runs through it, was a sense of purposeful dignity in the work I was doing, returning dignity to the bodies I was working on. Death left them disordered and took control from them so I have to step in and reorder them. Thats why Im closing their mouths and eyes, and removing the fluids, and cleaning them up, however barbaric it may seem. And even though theres a demon loose, theres a feeling of peaceful accomplishment and calm to it. It actually feels like a nice place to be.

Chasing this experience with A Morticians Tale reinforces this. On the surface, the games couldnt be more different: one is dark and ominous and photorealistic, and the other is gentle and bright with simple, storybook art and a carefully limited colour range. But underneath that, theyre absolutely saying the same thing – and you will know one from the other, which is a nice feeling. But A Morticians Tale has more to say, and it explains the whys of a lot of what youre doing – why you put caps in the eyes before closing them, why you fill in the mouths.

An almost cartoon-like depiction of a body on a morticians table, awaiting treatment. An almost cartoon-like depiction of a body on a morticians table, awaiting treatment.

The body of an elderly lady on a mortuary table, undergoing the embalming process where blood drains from her body.

An almost cartoon-like depiction of a body on a morticians table, awaiting treatment. Theres an embalming machine on the left and tools on the right.

The body of an elderly man on a mortuary trolley, moving between rooms.
Side by side: A Morticians Tale and The Mortuary Assistant.

But more than that: it touches on the why of why people do this at all. Because theres a stigma, isnt there? Why would someone work with spooky dead bodies? What if they all came back to life and ate you? Thats the question brimming behind the surface whenever we think of someone in an undertakers role, however silly and ridiculous it sounds – thanks, movies. And if we meet someone who does: well, its notable, isnt it? Its unusual.

Or how about noble? You see, the overwhelming feeling in A Morticians Tale is positivity, which was something else I didnt expect. Its in the small things like emails from your boss – “Youre a treasure, Charlie” has to be the nicest message anyone will ever receive – but also in the bigger picture of what youre doing. Death is that icky thing many people dont want to touch, but you will. You are prepared to step in, time and time again, and restore order at an unordered time – to prepare the body, yes, but also to prepare the loved ones emotionally attached to it for what comes next. Its profound work.

Two games about the same thing, one shedding more light on the other, and both shedding light on a profession often misconstrued or misunderstood. Morgues and morticians, you are not what I thought you were – you are more.

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