Life in death
As an on-call handler and hauler of Washoe County’s most recently deceased, Jennifer Spoor regularly wades into the deepest of blood feuds and family crises, suppressing her own instincts to help facilitate a healthy grieving process among the survivors. It’s a negative adrenaline rush requiring immeasurable compassion and an intense love for strangers. Turns out, it’s not necessarily the macabre-minded who excel as so-called “mortality mops.” In a way, it’s those who seem to be the most interested in life.
I know you’re responsible for picking up and hauling dead bodies, but what is the actual job title?
Technically, I’m a “removal person,” employed by Final Wishes, an independent funeral home that contracts out for the state. I’m on call at night and work during the day. I mostly run errands and work as the funeral home’s accountant. I get cremations ready by filing all the paperwork and getting the necessary permits from the state. I do lots of stuff. I’m a busy girl.
What needs to be done before you can cremate?
The paperwork is important. Then I move the body into a heavy duty cardboard box and put it in a cremation unit called a retort. I have to check that there’s no jewelry and no pacemakers on the body because pacemakers will explode. If we find any jewelry, we give it back to the family. We’re a full-service funeral home, so we also do burials.
How on Earth did you get involved in this business?
When my grandfather passed away, I went to see him. He was unclothed and lying on a metal table with a sheet over him. They didn’t even care enough to put a nightgown on him. I was highly upset by that; no dignity.
Later when I was studying forensics, I figured I better make sure that I’m able to be around dead people before I take all that time to study. I went to different funeral homes, and most of them said, “We don’t hire girls,” and then I came here. After a three-month trial basis just to see if I could cut it, I’ve now been doing this for 7 years.
It’s mostly obese, sickly pale men involved in the industry?
[Laughs]. The first case I went on, the people who were out there—the coroner and the police—wouldn’t even let me in the house because I was a girl, and they didn’t think I could do it.
You don’t get into a biohazard suit and do the post-mortem crime scene-type cleaning?
I’ve seen a lot of stuff—I’ve seen everything there is. There are six or seven companies in town that clean up hazardous waste like what you’re talking about. Still, doing what I do, you have to get shots before you go out on calls, and we do suit up because once a person dies, they’re considered a biohazard. You have to be as careful around them as you would a sick person.
How many calls do you go on per day?
Well, there were something like 3,000 deaths in Washoe County last year. A large chunk of these go to the medical examinator’s office. If there’s anything suspicious about the death, they do an autopsy. Or, if the deceased hasn’t seen a doctor within 21 days before they’re found, it’s automatically a coroner’s case.
Dead bodies don’t bother you at all, do they?
No. Like I said, it’s all men who work in this field. I’m the first girl, and nobody thought I would really work out. They said, “You’ll be here for a week, and then we’ll never see you again.” It’s physically a hard job to do, and it can be stressful.