Morgues and mortuaries

Morgues are places where reportable deaths are investigated by a coroner, while mortuaries are the places where dead bodies are stored temporarily for a range of reasons, including autopsies and preparations for burial such as embalming.

Autopsy table

Stuart Humphreys © Australian Museum

"In Australia, as in Europe and North America, [after World War 1] reminders of death were put to one side and muted. Death began to move out of the centre of life and out of the family home into special, contained, places created by the churches, the funeral industry and the medical profession. The funeral industry reflected the domestic nature of earlier funerals in designating their premises as 'funeral homes' or 'funeral parlours'...Death became increasingly taboo. Griffin, Graeme and Des Tobin, In the midst of life: the Australian response to death, 1997.

What is a morgue?

The word morgue comes from the name of a building, originally in Paris, where bodies were laid out for identification. The term was more generally adopted in the 1880s to describe the place where autopsies were performed.

In Australia morgues are now officially referred to as Departments or Institutes of Forensic Medicine. They are the places where coroners investigate reportable deaths.

In a Department or Institute of Forensic Medicine the mortuary is the place where dead bodies are stored temporarily and the autopsy is performed.

What is a mortuary?

Mortuaries are found either attached to a funeral home or attached to a Department or Institute of Forensic Medicine.

Modern mortuaries are usually rooms that have stainless-steel tables; refrigerators and floor coverings that go half way up the walls.

In Australia, the majority of human remains are stored and prepared in the mortuary of a funeral home. Preparation includes washing and disinfecting the body, suturing or packing of openings, embalming (if required), dressing the body and arranging it in the coffin.

Embalming

'To embalm' means to impregnate with aromatic substances (balms). In the past, substances such as honey, wax, alcohol, oils, herbs and spices were used to preserve, disinfect and mask decomposition. Modern embalming involves the injection of chemicals directly into the body through blood vessels for the purposes of sanitation, preservation and presentation.

In New South Wales, bodies are normally fully embalmed if the body is to be transported overseas, is going into an above-ground vault; is to be kept unrefrigerated for more than eight hours, or is to be kept for longer than five days. Temporary or cosmetic embalming, which improves the deceased's appearance, is often carried out prior to a viewing.

Embalming may only be carried out in a mortuary by a certified embalmer. Some cultures do not permit embalming.


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