If you asked my eight-year-old self what the most romantic film moment in existence was, it'd be any scene with Gomez and Morticia in The Addams Family, disembodied hands down. The weird and miserable sex talk, the death obsession, the graveyard—I still think they're the greatest couple that never existed.
Mortuary regular Carla Valentine is doing her best to make my ideal couple a reality. By day, she works at the Barts Pathology Museum near Smithfield Market in London, helping to restore it by repotting ancient anatomical specimens so that people like me can peer at them through glass. By night, she's doing what the rest of us are doing: dicking around on the internet.
Dead Meet is Carla’s dating and networking website for people who work in the “death industry," which is basically anyone from gravediggers to medical historians to forensics officers to taxidermists. So far, it has 5,000 members. I sat down with Carla to ask her why people in the business of death have such a morbid fascination with one another.
VICE: When and why did you start Dead Meet?
Carla Valentine: I started the site in spring this year, although it had been on my mind since Christmas. I started it because of my own career in the death industry. When I was an anatomical pathology technologist [healthcare science staff who work in hospital mortuaries, assist in postmortems, etc.] one of the first things I was told by my manager was the importance of discretion. He said it was frowned upon to discuss the minutiae of my working day unless it was with someone who could be trusted to keep the secrets of the profession and therefore ensure the dignity and privacy of the patients.
This, of course, makes sense, but there were very few APTs in the UK, and I hadn’t come from a family of undertakers. I just wanted to be able to chat to someone who could really understand me. I wanted more friends in the same profession, not just my co-workers, and perhaps even a partner to talk to in the wee small hours of the night. When asked, “How was your day?” I wanted to be able to say how it really was, safe in the knowledge that uttering sentences not usually uttered by "normal" people wouldn’t send someone packing.
What kind of thing might APTs say when they come home from a bad day?
[Laughs] Well, I can’t be too specific but it could be something to do with decomposition, or it could be something emotionally tough, like the postmortem or funeral of a particularly sad case.
In terms of wanting to meet like-minded people then, do people in the death industry get sick of explaining death to curious non-industry types, or do they just want to talk about it all the time and need someone who’s OK with that?
I can’t speak for everyone, but frequently in my experience, it’s the latter. For example, I was recently at a Morbid Anatomy event at the Wellcome Collection museum. After the event I went for a drink with Morbid Anatomy’s founder, Joanna Ebenstein, and John Troyer from the Centre for Death & Society, as well as my best friend, Lara, who happens to work at the mortuary I used to work at—a cheerful group!
Over a few beers, we enthusiastically spoke of death and related topics all night, and every time we changed the topic, we’d veer back to it again. I’m surprised the people on the table next to us remained there. For me, death is certainly a subject that will come up daily, and I feel it’s important for me to be surrounded by people who are OK with that.
Are there death groupies?
I suppose you could say there are “death groupies," as much as there are groupies for everything else in the world, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Everyone will die—it’s only natural that many people will be curious about the topic and want to know more. And, of course, their support helps various projects I work on become successful, so I’m very thankful for that.
I think it’s more of a problem when people who are groupies begin to tout themselves as experts on social media and via other less stringently regulated avenues. I tweet about mortuary practices and medical education because I teach medical students and I’m still an APT. Even though it’s not full-time, I have both APT qualifications, eight years’ experience, and I'm on a response register for mass disasters.
For that reason I’m wary of dilettantes who don’t have real expertise, academic qualifications, or vocational experience, but are reinventing themselves as authorities on topics like this because death has become popular.
How many members have you got so far?
5,000 on the site.
Jeez! Have you had any problems marketing it?
Yes, I’ve had a couple of problems marketing the site—I’m sure many people think it’s a joke and don’t take it seriously when they see it. At the other end of the scale, I had an article taken down from a website because the board members thought the idea of Dead Meet was too macabre. You can’t please everyone.
I realize there have been huge advances in ensuring careers like those in the mortuary are regulated and are more professional—APTs want to be represented in a certain way. But at the same time, I really think people are afraid to have a sense of humor in this sector due to fears of seeming “insensitive,” particularly after the Alder Hey scandal and subsequent formation of the regulatory body the Human Tissue Authority.
What jobs count as "death industry" jobs that we might not have thought about?
Perhaps nurses? People forget it’s usually the nurses’ job to "lay out" the deceased in hospitals, so as an APT I used to teach about decomposition and viewings on the nurse induction days for new starters. They spend more time with the dead than, say, doctors do.
Are there any reasons why a funeral director would make a better boyfriend or girlfriend than someone who works in administration or writes shit on the internet for a living?
I’m sure that some funeral directors would make great boyfriends because the likelihood is they are fairly strong, able-bodied, and their jobs may have imbued them with a sense of patience or respect. Perhaps embalmers would make better boyfriends because they use cosmetics on the deceased and they’d understand why it takes many women so long to get ready. But at the same time, people are all different and those who work in the death industry don’t all have the same personality—although many of us have a great sense of humor.
So what’s a date with a mortician really like?
Again, it depends which mortician, but a date with me can range from something simple like a bite to eat and a bottle of wine, to a night at an immersive horror film experience, or a trip to the Science Museum during the day. The best way to find out what a date with a mortician is like is to go on Dead Meet and find yourself one.
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