Priscila Hoffman, death-industry worker and singer
Priscila Hoffman is the real deal. When she’s not commanding the stage as the frontwoman of local doom powerhouse Cura Cochino, you can find her with bone saw in hand cutting across the crown of a corpse, performing an autopsy, conducting a cremation and more as a veritable jill of all trades within the death industry. Recently, Hoffman sat down with SN&R to tell us all about her lifelong passion for death.
What’s the day-to-day like?
Every day is kinda different and that’s what I really love about what I do. I don’t do the same thing every day. I’m on-call for autopsies, I don’t do that every day. They call me to do [autopsies] when there’s a homicide because I’m in charge of all the evidence; I process all the evidence. If I’m not at the morgue, then I’m doing cremations. The brain harvesting is on-call as well. We don’t know when the donors are going to pass away, so when they do they call us and we go pick them up, bring the body into our care and I remove their brain.
Is the job emotionally difficult?
Only when there’s children involved. That’s definitely tough. I still can’t get used to that. It’s hard every time. It’s not that I don’t feel bad for the older people, but a lot of times they chose to die; a lot of them commit suicide. So, it’s like, OK, they wanted that, but not the children. That’s what makes me feel really bad.
What’s lunchtime like for you?
It’s regular lunchtime. We’re not allowed to eat next to the bodies. There’s two pathologists that work at this morgue, and one of them has a pretty big office and that’s where we’ll go and eat lunch, if we have time. An autopsy can take anywhere between two hours or more. I’ve heard of some that have taken days to do.
Why would an autopsy take days?
If there was a lot of trauma to the body. The doctor first starts with the external description of all the wounds, that alone can take a long time. Describing each cut, for example, each bullet wound, anything, takes a long time. [The doctor] measures every wound as well. If it’s a suspicious death, then there’s CSI involved, there’s detective’s involved; so then there’s a lot of photographs going on, measurements, descriptions, and after all that, that’s when we do “the cut,” … the Y incision. Each organ gets removed, then weighed, then the doctor will section each organ and he’ll keep some to look at later, and the rest go back into what we call the “gut bag.”
Tell me about the gut bag.
That’s where the rest of the organs go that the doctor doesn’t necessarily need to look at later on. Everything goes in there, and when we’re done we put the gut-bag inside the empty cavity, tie it up and finish sewing you up. It’s an actual bag. A red plastic bag.
What drew you to this field?
I’ve been wanting to do this since I was a teenager. I’d go around to funeral homes asking if I could get a job and I would get turned away every time because I hadn’t gone to school for it. But everyone was always very helpful and would give me tours of the funeral homes and they would always tell me to go to school. First, I really wanted to be an embalmer. Then I started taking classes at [American River College]. I took this class, anatomy for funeral services. The lab part of the class was at the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office and that’s when I first set foot at the coroner’s office. I saw all these chicks working with doctors doing stuff; they were cutting ribs and opening heads and these were all badass chicks and that’s when I knew, immediately, this is what I want to do. I changed my mind about embalming.
How has being in the death industry impacted your view of life?
I definitely now see that it can all end when you least expect it. All these freak accidents. Stuff happens when you’re not expecting it and even when you are, I feel like you’re never prepared for it.
What can you tell about Sacramentans from dealing with Sacramentan bodies?
It seems like a lot of older white males commit suicide by taking a gun to their head. I think this is everywhere in the U.S. Women hang themselves. A lot of people jump off the Foresthill Bridge.
How has it affected your own body image?
It definitely makes me think I have to have my nails trimmed and keep up with my appearance because I think if my friends come over and get me I don’t want to be a mess. When people come in and have really long toenails, that’s stuff I think about. I know all these people working at the morgue, and I don’t want them to be like, “Ew Priscila, she didn’t shave.” (Laughs.)
What do you want done with your body?
When you go to a funeral home, it’s all timed, you have to hurry. you get a half-hour maybe, or you can pay for more time. It’s going to cost you thousands of dollars. An at-home funeral allows you to keep your loved one for up to three days in your living room so that people can come over from anywhere if you need to wait for relatives. When my mom died, she died in Mexico and they immediately took her, so by the time I showed up it was already her funeral, she had already been embalmed, she was in a casket and there was glass over it so I couldn’t even touch her; that upset me very much. I’m thinking I want a party. I want people to party. To pour beers over my casket, have live music … I want it to be a full-on party and then I want to be cremated.
Babies get daycare, the elderly have adult daycare; this concept of care is with us throughout our entire lives. So, once life is over, how is a body cared for?
For starters, not everyone gets an autopsy. It depends. If you want a full-on funeral and want to be embalmed, then there are a lot more hands on the body. If you die in a suspicious manner, you get taken to the morgue. Everyone I’ve worked with treat the deceased with a lot of respect. I do things that aren’t part of the job. For example, when I do autopsies, afterward, if the deceased have long hair, I like to braid their hair. Because you know, I took the time to comb it out because I need to in order to make the cut to remove the brain, so when I put the skull cap back and I comb their hair, I like to brush it and make it nice. I care. I care a little too much sometimes.
Many fear death, but is there an aspect of death that people should focus on more?
Do research and know what you want done to your body. A lot of people don’t prepare for it. People don’t talk about this. [Family] may assume [the deceased] want to be embalmed and buried not even knowing that the [deceased] didn’t want that done to them. It’s also what your family can afford. It can cost thousands and thousands of dollars.
Has your autopsy work influenced your art?
Definitely. I write all of the lyrics in Cura Cochino. A lot of them have to do with death. When I tell people that know I’m in a band what I do for a living, they’re like, “You’re the real deal.” There’s a whole genre of music about death. All these guys don’t necessarily work in the field. I know exactly what I’m talking about. I experience this every day.
Anything unusual you’ve found in bodies, or interesting in general?
I just did one on Monday and there was a coin inside the body. A dime. It was in the stomach. A lot of the time the stomach contents will still be full-on pieces of food. Part of the autopsy is emptying out the stomach and weigh the contents. Part of my job is to go through it and look for anything odd, maybe some pills. It’s always kind fun to be like, “oh, looks like they had fajitas,” “Looks like they had a nice last meal.” Some people who have nothing in their stomachs. You can tell, too, when the person was on medication because their intestines are just full of poop.
How do you wish American’s viewed death?
I think people should not be so freaked out by it. They don’t want to touch the body. I wish they would get more involved instead of just sending them off somewhere for someone else to take care of. I wish more people got involved in the bathing and dressing process. I would want my loved ones to do that to me instead of some strangers.
Any odd requests by those that lost a loved one?
There are people who want to see the body before it’s cleaned. I don’t think they should. Sometimes you can’t recognize the person. I wouldn’t want to remember my loved one looking like that. I’d want to remember them how they looked before they got hit by a truck. Still, we have people that insist on seeing their loved on like that.
Tell me a little bit about your skeleton, Mary.
Mary donated her body to science, then they sold her to a museum, then the museum closed down and a couple acquired her; they put her on consignment at a little weird shop in Tacoma, that’s where we got her.