“Bringing Out the Dead” (Originally Posted 2/11/2005)

I don’t know if the average person ever thinks about the issue of removing a body from a scene. Most everyone has seen a body rolled away on the news or on a crime drama by people specially “trained” to perform that task. Needless to say, there is no actual formal training. Each removal is potentially its own little training session. Training sessions are distinguished from routine removals as they are typically punctuated by variations of the phrases “That worked well” or “Don’t ever try that again.”

A best-case scenario for body removal is a 100 pound little old lady that died in bed during the night on the first floor of her house. First, she’s easy to lift. In fact, it may be possible to collapse the gurney to the same level as the bed and just slide her over wrapped in a sheet. Second, she’s already laid out flat. No need to struggle with breaking the rigor mortis in order to buckle her to the gurney. Next, she died in the night. She hasn’t been dead that long, so there may not be any foul odor until her body is moved. And lastly, she’s on the first floor, so no more than one or two steps to go up.

Now for a worst case scenario—a 350 pound man that died in bed two weeks ago on the third floor of his apartment building. Obviously the increased weight changes everything and it’s only complicated by the fact that he’s been dead for some time. It is now necessary that he be placed in a body bag in order to contain the decomposition “juices” that have accumulated just under the surface of the skin. The rigor mortis has already gone away or “passed,” but his girth still makes it difficult to zip up the body bag and to strap him to the gurney.

The only redeeming element of this scenario is that the man is in bed and not directly on the floor or (God forbid) in the bathtub. As it stands, I would lay the open body bag on the floor next to the bed. Then I would throw a bed sheet over the body to catch any decomposition juices expelled from areas of concentration ruptured during the initial move. Next, I would grab the body through the sheet, pull it from the edge of the bed, and let gravity do the rest. It’s at this point that the decomposition juice is actually helpful. It makes for a slippery surface on which it is much easier to slide a body.

Once he’s in the bag, there is still the issue of getting him to ground level. He’s already met the “250 Pound Rule” which states that “Anyone who dies in an apartment building above the first floor is guaranteed to weigh at least 250 pounds.” Hundreds of apartment buildings in this city and they seem to have all been constructed before the days of handicap accessibility.

Without an elevator, gravity is called upon once again. I am a firm believer in letting the floor do the majority of the work, so there is a lot of sliding involved—especially when it comes to stairs. Holding on tightly to the bag, I slowly allow it to slide down each flight of stairs to the ground floor. The drawback of this process in conjunction with the lack of rigor mortis results in the body slumping down into one end of the bag like an orange in a sock.

I’ve lost count of how many times I wished I had “body handlers” at my disposal like the ones that are often shown on television and in movies. Hollywood body handlers are typically two respectable looking actors with no lines that are shown moving the body from the scene on a gurney. Their manner of dress makes them look a lot like paramedics but without the sense of urgency burdening those with life-saving responsibilities.

In the real world—or at least my corner of it—the body handlers are myself, the mortician transporting the body, and anyone else willing to help. Needless to say, volunteers are usually hard to come by.

After reading the above, Douglas commented:

“You mention using the floor to do most of your work. And specifically describe a trip down the stairs. Is there not much concern that a bouncy trip down the stairs would produce new damage or obscure existing wounds making pronouncement that much more difficult?”

To which I responded:

As I reread my post, I can see where my description sounds like a scene from “Weekend at Bernie’s” with a body sliding uncontrollably down the stairs like a runaway toboggan. It’s more of a controlled slide as we ease the bag down with the help of gravity. It still requires some straining, but considerably less than carrying it the whole way down.

As such, there is minimal impact to the body. I have seen a head strike a concrete surface as a gurney fell over. There was a slight mark to the scalp but no underlying fracture present at autopsy and there was no swelling because there was no blood pumping.

About the only trauma that might occur would be an abrasion to the body from rubbing against the inside of the bag. In this case there would be very little “reaction” in the skin tissue–that is to say the abraded area of the skin would have a parchment-like appearance as opposed to the typical appearance of aggravated tissue that has started to heal itself.

As for obscuring the wounds, they should have already been documented before removing the body.

Couches are easier to move down stairs. They may be bulkier, but they are much more rigid and the weight is even distributed. Even a body in full rigor will sag in the middle making the body seem much heavier. I wouldn’t be surprised if an undertaker was the first person to coin the phrase “dead weight.”

Hope that answers your question…

A Douglas


5 Responses to ““Bringing Out the Dead” (Originally Posted 2/11/2005)”

  1. April 14, 2007 at 7:11 am

    This was a fascinating look at body removal. Thanks.

  2. 2 Shirley
    April 14, 2007 at 9:48 am

    Why do some bodies have what looks like black blood blisters on them? Is this just part of the decomposition process? I love reading about what the public rarely gets to hear about. Can’t wait for the next story!

    It sounds like you’re describing an ecchymosis, which is essentially blood that has leached out of an area of ruptured vasculature and settled just under the surface of the skin creating a blister. The elderly or those with weakened vascular systems are predisposed to sustaining ecchymoses. They are commonly produced at injection sites or when the person is lifted or moved by a caregiver.

    Hope that helps and thanks for the kind words.

    A Douglas

  3. April 16, 2007 at 12:16 am

    Hello! It’s been a while since I’ve visited. I pretty much thought you’d stopped updating. Great to see I was wrong and still love your stories.

  4. 4 kiTTy
    April 22, 2007 at 9:25 pm

    I do agree w’ the above that I love your stories…..just bumped into this sight and I’ll def’ be returning for more

  5. February 26, 2008 at 5:13 am


    I hope this blog isn’t a case for the coroner yet, because really I enjoyed reading your stories.

    Also, I have a question:
    Recently aquaintances of mine brought a video showing the body of a dead tibetan monk. Everybody was very thrilled, because even five days after his death, he was still sitting in full lotus position. The head had fallen forwards so that his chin was resting on his chest, but he was still sitting upright.
    Everyone made a great fuss about this since the fact that he was still sitting like that *obviously* was a sign of his great mental accompishments.

    So, my question is:
    If a person dies sitting in lotus position, is it really that strange if the body stays in that position, or is that “normal”? What would you expect?

    Thank you for taking your time


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