I’ve dropped people. Luckily never in front of a family, but over the last decade I’ve dropped a few bodies on bathroom floors, in elevators, in hospital garages and on the prep room floor. I’ve collapsed gurneys too soon when taking them out of the van, or when trying to move a body from the gurney to a table, and this results in the body hitting the floor very hard and possibly sustaining facial damage I then need to repair (at no charge to the family). I’ve dropped heavy people, and those who were not heavy; when working alone and when working with an assistant. It’s one of those embarrassing workplace moments everyone in funeral service can expect to share.

Heavy lifting is one requirement of a mortician’s job and all who choose this job should expect, at times, to lift very heavy people without an assistant present. You’ll learn to make use of items at the scene, such as sheets and towels, that you can use to move a body, but you will need to do this by yourself or you won’t be of use to a funeral home (unless it is a funeral home who routinely sends two people on all calls).

And, since I know that nothing motivates out-of-shape people better than overly simple instructions from fit people, I’ll point out that heavy lifting outside of work is great preparation for heavy lifting on the job. If you’re a woman and you don’t lift, I really want to hear your plan for daily handling and moving of people who outweigh you by hundreds of pounds. Resistance training protects your back as well, so that when you turn 50, you can pick up a body without having to call in sick the next day.

Of course, even if you lift, you will still have to improvise on the job because bench-pressing 200 lbs is much different than picking up a 200 lb person. The bar’s weight is even on both sides; is meant to be gripped in your palms; and usually does not have blood. Resistance training simply builds the large muscles in your body – chest, back, legs – so they will be available to take the workload off your smaller muscles and joints.

It is important to be familiar with your equipment, specifically your cot, table, van, and plastic pouches. Different cots have different mechanisms for collapsing and loading. We’ve all yelled “Just don’t pull that lever” a bit too late, right? If you are using an unfamiliar cot or if you just bought one, do a few dry runs. (I know people who will pull a wrapped body from the cooler and practice taking it up and down stairs and loading it into a van.) At least learn how high you have to lift the foot end of your cot and where the lever on the head end is, and take it around a few corners to see if any of the wheels are…funny.

Learn where the brakes on prep tables and dressing tables are, so that when you pull the body off the gurney, the table doesn’t go rolling across the room as the body slides to the floor and you silently yell nonononono.

Practice unloading the cot out of your van to make sure that you will not need help at the funeral home when you return. I’ve loaded countless heavy people, only to find out that I cannot unload them without help. And if possible, at the scene, park on smooth, flat ground. Gurney problems are more likely if you are rolling over grass, gravel, or at an angle.

Finally, before going to the scene, ASK how big the person is. Being a woman, I expect people to take offense when I ask for an exact numerical value of someone’s weight, so sometimes I ask for height as well, to make it obvious I only want to see they will fit on my cot. Most people do not ask about height, but if a person is seven feet tall, I want to know before I arrive. And don’t just ask for a weight, ask WHERE the body is. Removing a 200-lb person from a bed is generally not an issue. Off the floor or toilet? It can take quite a long time for one person.

Ask about the layout of the house. You’re more likely to drop a body if you have to navigate around stacks of magazines; multiple litter boxes; or those night tables that always seem to barricade the bed of every hospice patient. I don’t ask families to clean their homes to make my job easier, but I will let them know my response time will be delayed because I will have to bring an assistant with me.

Probably because I am small, families want to help when I arrive at their homes. I encourage families to be involved in the removal, as in all aspects of the service, but I do not like them actually doing the work. One reason is because they are paying the funeral home’s removal charge. It is legal for a family to bring the body to the funeral home themselves, in their own car, but they called me to do this for them instead. I am charging for my services, so it doesn’t feel right to tell them “This will cost you $250, now can you maybe hold his head?” If I simply cannot move a body in a reasonable amount of time alone and the family offers to help, I will discount the removal fee for them, but this may not happen if I am picking up for a funeral home where I do not work. All I can do is tell the director the family helped and hope they will receive a discount.

If they want to help in a small manner I have them hold hands or feet together while I am pouching the body. I don’t want them helping too much because they most likely do not understand how the gurney works or which dreaded lever not to pull.

Carry a disaster kit in your van with heavy plastics and a Hazmat suit or old clothes, because at some point you will be surprised. I often have to remove my jacket, shoes and jewelry at a scene. If the body is on the floor and heavy, and the only family present are little old ladies, I am going to end up doing full deadlifts in a skirt and nylons, or kneeling on the floor pushing and pulling, as I apologize repeatedly for this unpleasantness on the worst day of your lives, and I can only assure you that once we get through this part, our services will be more in line with what you have the right to expect from us. I will eventually get the body into my van, but it won’t be graceful and I won’t look very good when it’s done.

Deadlifts are awkward when done in a gym, in workout clothes with a barbell. They are even more awkward when done in someone’s home with their favorite person.

Sometimes I roll the body to one side, stuff towels under him, then roll him to the other side and spread out the towels so I can grab and drag. This is complicated by the gurney’s lowest height being a good six inches off the floor. If you lift the body in sections, you can sort of drape the upper body over the gurney and then try to move the legs.

And sometimes they will flat-out refuse to give you the information. This often happens with medical examiner calls where there is a police officer present. They want you there NOW and they don’t have time to answer questions about body fluids, weight, or anything in the house. So you get there NOW and the body is upstairs and the cops won’t help because they’re outside gagging. I’ve had to wrap people in sheets and, as gently as possible, guide/drag them down the stairs.

If you do drop a body in front of a family, all you can do is apologize and maybe blame your equipment. I’ve worked with people who found themselves in this situation, and nearly all of the time, it was a very heavy person and the family was understanding. In one case, the lady was over 400 lbs and two employees dropped her. Her husband was very nice and even found some kind of comic relief in the situation; her son never let us hear the end of it even when we took almost a thousand dollars off the funeral bill.

Then he brought fifty people to the “immediate family only” unembalmed body viewing, stayed well over the time he paid for, and trashed the viewing room. He did not like us at all.