How to become a Mortuary Technician – with Carla Valentine

Carla Valentine

Ever wanted to become a mortuary technician? If so, the best place for you to start is to read up on the career journeyh of Carla Valentine. Carla is a mortuary technician and the curator of St. Bart’s pathology museum, where regular death-related events and talks are hosted, including taxidermy workshops. Carla is a well-known ambassador for society taking a more balanced approach to death and remains. Wonderfully, she is also one of the (living) brains behind Dead Meets, a networking community for those involved in the death industry! Look for her name on YouTube and she’ll even regail you with the science of ace TV show Penny Dreadful

Ever since she was a little girl, Carla Valentine wanted to work in a mortuary (UK pathologists prefer not to refer to it as a morgue). We asked Carla for insights on becoming a mortuary technician, and tips on how to get into the death industry…

What made you become a mortuary technician?

It’s something I always wanted to do, literally since I was 8 or 9 years old. I never knew the actual name for the job but I knew I wanted to be involved in autopsies and discovering causes of death. I think with this kind of career you know from the start that you were meant to do it.

What is the pay like?

The pay isn’t fantastic as a rule, and it does differ if you’re in a hospital mortuary run by the NHS, or a Public Mortuary run by a Local Authority. It’s not particularly bad, and it’s graded as other jobs are in those organisations, but it’s not a job you do for the money… there are far easier ways to earn it!

What sort of qualifications/training do you need?

In principle you just need a good basic education (GCSE’s etc) as the specific training you require to be an Anatomical Pathology Technician (APT) is done on the job. You do a Certificate in Anatomical Pathology Technology which takes 2 years. You can then do a further 2 years to receive a Diploma in Anatomical Pathology Technology which will allow you to do autopsies on High Risk Cases (such as TB, HIV, Hepatitis and swine flu) and enable you to progress to mortuary manager.

However, places are very competitive and there is a welcome emphasis on Continuing Professional Development within this career. I had a Forensic and Biomolecular Science HND by the time I applied for my post, and most people applying nowadays will hold something similar.

Job satisfaction? What are the perks of being a mortuary technician?

Carla in scrubs doing pathology stuff

This is an incredibly rewarding job: reconstructing someone after a completely disfiguring train death so their family can view them in the chapel of rest, helping to discover a cause of death that had perplexed a patient’s doctors previously or documenting fatal injuries in a Forensic Autopsy so that a perpetrator goes to prison – these are all valid reasons to get out of bed in the morning.

There are other perks such as using your knowledge to advise on TV shows like ‘Silent Witness’, or theatre productions like Danny Boyle’s ‘Frankenstein’ – mortuaries I’ve worked in have been approached to do these things among many others.

What are the not-so-perky parts of it?

Taking part in an on-call rota and having a pager hound you 24-7 can be difficult, as well as carrying out post-mortems at strange times: very early in the morning or very late at night. I think the other not-so-perky parts are the stuff of most people’s nightmares such as being smeared with every possible human excretion or having to carry out an autopsy with maggots wriggling over you or flies buzzing around you (or on an exhumed or embalmed body). You have to shoulder lots of cleaning and repetitive tasks, dealing with difficult family members or doctors… The list is endless, really.

How physically/mentally demanding is the job?

Being a mortuary technician is far more demanding than anyone can probably comprehend unless they’ve done similar work. The job will take it out of you physically as it involves lots of moving heavy bodies around. And, of course, standing on your feet to carry out an autopsy which will take 1-3 hours. Some Forensic PM’s can take around 12 hours. You will not sit down all day if you work in a busy environment as autopsies will then give way to releasing patients to Funeral Directors and preparing them for viewings.

On TV, the Pathologist will carry out the evisceration of the body (that is, the removal of the organs.) In real life it is the APT who does this and it’s not easy – it involves lots of tools and hauling heavy bowls and trays around. Unless you’ve had the experience of this (which most people won’t have!) you can’t imagine how dense and heavy human organs are.

And, of course, mentally it will be very draining and some of the more progressive mortuaries will understand the need for debriefing sessions and supervision (a type of counselling) of APT’s. Because most of the information you’ll take in is confidential it means there aren’t really many ways for you to ‘unburden’ yourself so it can be very tough unless you have a good relationship with your colleagues.

Most glorious career moment to date?

I’m lucky enough to have had several! Being a part of a BBC documentary series called The Death Detectives was a lot of fun but working in the temporary mortuary set up for the 7th July London Bombings was also very rewarding.

Most hideous career moment to date?

I’ve probably had several of those too but certainly cutting myself during a High Risk post-mortem was the worst as it involves a lot of medical treatment.

Danger factor?

There are very many inherent risks associated with this job. Not only sharps injuries from scalpels and syringes, but blood-borne and air-borne infections, chemical burns and manual handling injuries. Health and Safety is paramount, as are Manual Handling Training, COSHH knowledge, up to date SOP’s, First Aid and many, many bits of paper and courses full of acronyms!

Sexy uniform factor? Dating factor?

It takes a certain kind of girl to make a scrub suit and wellies look sexy – especially when you throw in a hair net and a plastic apron! But it won’t hamper your dating at all as you’ll come into contact with many, many people – police officers, soldier, undertakers, firemen, coroner’s officers, doctors and student doctors… and they’re nearly all in uniform!

What advice would you give to anyone interested in becoming a mortuary technician?

You have to apply for a position as a Trainee APT – there is no other way to do it except to start as a trainee. It will definitely help you to have Forensic knowledge or previous science qualifications such as Microbiology, Human Anatomy or Anthropology but it won’t guarantee you an interview. Places are very competitive and many APT’s move to different cities to get a foot on the ladder or move up a rung. That’s how I moved from Liverpool to London, for example. Search the Association of Anatomical Pathology Technicians website and attend the conferences and courses as it can help to chat to other APT’s and mortuary managers if it’s a serious career choice for you.

Is it a job for life? How does one progress from being a mortuary technician?

For many people being an APT will be (rather ironically) a job for life and they will progress from certificate and diploma levels through to becoming mortuary managers. However, the higher up you move, the less involved with Pathology and post-mortems you become (depending on where you work). I found that as a Senior APT (after 8 years on the job) I was out of the PM room more and more, dealing with paperwork and other commitments. I believe that the step I took, to become Pathology Museum Technician and Assistant Curator at St Bart’s has been absolutely perfect for me, and that all the experience I went through previously was leading me to this post. I use my knowledge of anatomy and pathology daily, I use my teaching and presentation skills constantly but I also get to manage my own time, oversee others and have an enormous amount of creative control.

What does your working day look like?

I now spend my days in a beautiful Grade II Listed Building on the grounds of St Bart’s Hospital, surrounded by over 5000 anatomical specimens (the oldest of which is from 1756). I conserve the ‘pots’ by cleaning them and topping them up, and I also arrange them and catalogue them. I’m helping to design a new public website and working on some very interesting Public Engagement projects to really bring Pathology to life (excuse the pun…) I have a unique seminar series coming up which includes a lecture on the death of Marilyn Monroe, a vampire evening (complete with ingestible blood) which is also to coincide with National Pathology Year’s blood month (November) and a talk from Joanna Ebenstein of the blog ‘Morbid Anatomy’ who is coming all the way from New York.

I also freelance as an advisor on medical based creative projects and one of the most exciting things I’m working on is the ‘Eat Your Heart Out’ 2012 Pathology-based cake shop, the brain child of the notorious Miss Cakehead. All of these events will be unique and fascinating so I hope people will come and see for themselves how incredible the world of Pathology is, whatever role you choose.

Enter Carla’s Online World of Pathology…