The morgue can be a creepy and sad place. These spaces have a fascinating history though which we will look at just in time for Halloween! Morgues or mortuaries are used today as storage sites for our corpses, keeping them as fresh as possible until disposal. Less commonly known though is the origins behind the word. The word comes from the French word, morguer, which means “to stare”.
A Spectacle of the Real:
Morgues in late 19th century Paris were hot travel destinations. In a time well before DNA forensics, bodies were laid out on slabs in front of windows. The public could line up and gaze freely upon the bodies, hopefully identifying the victims in the process. Most people attended these spectacles out of sheer curiosity. Food and toys were sold outside and children were permitted inside the viewing rooms. These events were termed, “spectacles of the real.”
Public Health Concern:
With a little imagination one can easily picture what these morgues would have smelled like. In a time before proper preservation and refrigeration methods were used, bodies decayed very quickly, especially in the summer months. The smell of rotting flesh would have emanated from these spaces to the detriment of the surrounding general population. Prior to the discovery of germ theory, many people believed that diseases spread through miasmas, or smells. More hygienic methods for morgue operations became commonplace, in-part, due to a concern for public health (Cock-Starkey). Another reason for the evolution of the morgue relates to death culture transitioning from a hands-on approach to one handled almost entirely by professionals. Slowly but surely, the cultural tides shifted and death became something that society was largely shielded from.
Accidental live burials happened in the past more than we would think. I will link my post about live burials HERE. Some morgues were used as waiting rooms in the hopes of preventing live burials. A body would be laid out in the room and left to begin decomposition. The release of decomposition gases assured the surviving relatives that the person was indeed dead. These waiting mortuaries were one of the most popular death-testing methods (“Being Buried Alive…”).
Common euphemisms used today for morgues include, “rainbows end,” and “rose cottage.” This change of language is deemed more digestible to nearby patients and family members. Tell me, would you have dared to take a peek inside these ancient spectacle of the real? One day you’ll get the chance!
Have a safe and spooky Halloween!
Until Next Time
- Alexa. “Being buried alive was so common in the Victorian era that doctors used these 10 methods to prevent it.” History Collection. 23 December, 2017. Accessed 26 October, 2021. https://historycollection.com/buried-alive-common-victorian-era-doctors-used-10-methods-prevent/7/.
- Cock-Starkey, Claire. “The surprising origin of the word morgue.” Mental Floss. 13 April, 2018. Accessed 26 October, 2021. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/539452/surprising-origin-word-morgue.
- “Morgue.” The Order of the Good Death. 13 July, 2012. Accessed 26 October, 2021. https://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/article/deathly-doodle-morgue/.