“Dying matters and the way we talk about dying matters”: Meet Christine Dorsett

Here, Christine Dorsett, our mortuary manager, explains the vital role mortuaries play in hospitals, and why it is important to talk about and plan for death.

What inspired your career path?

I have worked at the Trust for over twenty years. I started as a lab assistant in our histology labs before training as an anatomical pathology technician and working my way up to my current role. I initially fell into this career path but now I wouldn’t want to do anything else. It is a very niche job that isn’t suitable for everyone. But my passion comes from knowing that we do our best to care for all our patients – including those who have sadly died – treating everyone with the same respect and dignity.

As mortuary manager, I oversee our three mortuaries across St Mary’s, Charing Cross and Hammersmith hospitals. It is an honour to work within such a supportive and dedicated team of four.

Tell us what role mortuaries play in hospitals.

In our hospitals, we care for people of all ages and with all sorts of conditions. And sadly, some of our patients die while in our care. When this happens, our ward staff follow the Trust’s Care After Death guidance to appropriately and respectfully prepare the body for our mortuary. We then work very closely with our patient's affairs office who are the first point of contact for families; they explain next steps, arrange documentation for the family to complete, and support any families attending viewings at the mortuary. We also liaise with any funeral directors who wish to collect a patient from us for their funeral and the coroner regarding any cases that may require a post-mortem examination.

Our mortuaries offer a safe, secure and respectful environment for our patients who have sadly died. Throughout the time they are on our hospital grounds, they remain our patients. We hope this gives families and friends some peace of mind in what is always a very difficult time, knowing that their loved one is being taken care of.

Why does dying matter?

Dying matters and the way we talk about dying matters. Death itself is sadly an inevitable part of life, which is why we need to normalise talking about it and planning for it. Most people who choose to start a family think about a birthing plan, but not many people think about a plan for when they die. Having such a plan in place serves two main purposes: it means the individual can have an element of control over their death and what comes next, and it can make the grieving process less stressful for families if they know they are fulfilling their loved one’s wishes.

Do you have a typical working day?

Some days may be focused on post-mortems and confirming the next steps for each patient, and some days we facilitate viewings where family and close friends are able to come into the mortuary to see their loved ones. Every day brings something new and we are always looking for ways to improve the service.

Within the mortuary, how are you sensitive to the cultural and religious needs of deceased patients and their loved ones?

When facilitating viewings, we keep our rooms non-denominational so that when anyone steps into the room, the focus is on the patient. We also encourage family and friends to bring in any religious books or do their own prayers if they want to, and we work with funeral directors to try and accommodate any other wishes of the patient and their family.

Is there a research element?

As a research-led Trust, mortuaries have an important role in this area. In some cases, this means carrying out post-mortems to determine the cause of death or [with consent] supporting donations for research purposes. It makes me incredibly proud that we can contribute to the development of potentially pioneering and innovative new treatments and even potential cures for certain diseases. Historically, our Trust’s cancer research has been based on donated tissue and Parkinson’s research based on donated brains. These selfless donations mean that an individual’s legacy can continue after death and pave the way for our expert staff to save the lives of the patients who come after them.

If the patient has provided consent prior to their death, or if their family consent after their death, mortuaries can also be important for teaching purposes. Our mortuaries offer a different perspective from a textbook, scans and x-rays, or a surgical operating theatre.

How do you work collaboratively with other teams at the Trust?

Caring for a person at the end of their life and after death is a huge privilege. I deliver training to the ward staff who prepare patients who have died before they come to us and most recently, I have been talking to our end-of-life care team about what more we could and should be doing at both a patient and staff level to ensure end of life care and the transition to our mortuaries is as smooth as possible. We also work closely with many wider teams, for instance our bereavement nurses to support families; our patient affairs team, so that families and loved ones are supported through the next steps after losing someone; and our chaplaincy teams who perform our hospital funerals.

Find out more about our bereavement services.