Ask a Necromancer, by Amanda Downum

An Inconvenient Corpse

Jamie asks about “how/where/when to die for maximum inconvenience.”

A flippant question deserves a flippant response, but let me begin on a serious note: A human being is not an inconvenience.

I am not making light of anyone’s mental or physical health, financial situation, access to care, or social safety net. The living deserve dignity and consideration, and I personally feel that the dead do as well, to the best of our ability. Every day people are denied respect, dignity, and care because of their health, poverty, weight, or any number of other factors. I know too many people who have internalized the narrative that they deserve less, they take up too much space, they don’t provide enough value. They’re inconvenient.

You are not.

A certain degree of morbid humor and glib detachment is necessary for a first or last responder. And there are assholes in every profession. In this context, however, the “inconvenience” I’m grousing about is the pure pragmatic logistics of a situation, not any kind of moral judgment of the deceased.

With that being said…

Ask instead, dear reader, where would be a convenient place to die, exactly? Falling into a live volcano leaves very little mess to clean up. Becoming a frozen landmark on Mount Everest is technically littering, but at least you won’t smell much, and no one is going to bother dragging you down. Perhaps an expanse of desert with some helpful scavengers nearby?

But, as the internet reminds us, we live in a society. So more likely you will die within some sort of civilization, and someone else will have to move your body. Within that context, the most convenient death probably takes place in a hospital, preferably one with a morgue.* Any sort of care facility comes next, followed by a home death under hospice care, with a sensible nurse on hand.

Few things in this world, however, prioritize our convenience, and death is certainly not one of them. So, if you’re looking around your house one day and wondering where the worst possible place to die would be, there are multiple factors to consider. A useful metric might be, if a friend asked you to help them move furniture in or out of this space, how annoyed would you be and how fast? And what kind of furniture? An IKEA bookcase? A sectional sofa? Their grandmother’s irreplaceable heirloom vanity? Is the vanity…leaking? Is the entire family standing in the room crying while you try to not bump the vanity against the doorframe? (Maybe this metaphor is getting away from me.)

The same factors apply to moving anything, though. How big is the object? How heavy? Are there stairs? How many? Is the space cramped? Are there tight corners in the hallways? Did some lunatic decide to build a house with a cobbled walkway, a spiral staircase, and a second-floor home theater in a retirement community? Ahem. (My party trick is telling people how hard it would be to get a body out of their house. Why am I invited to so few parties?)

I consulted with a former EMT on this question, and despite being on opposing sides in the skeleton war, first and last responders largely agree: barring dramatic factors like insects and decomposition, stairs and bathrooms are the worst. I’m currently living in a third-floor walk-up apartment. Professional courtesy demands that I throw myself over the balcony if I believe the end is nigh. Or at least crawl down as many stairs as possible.

When making a house call, morticians normally have a collapsible cot, a body sling or a Reeves Sleeve, and sheets. (Check your van, kids; an ounce of prevention is worth hundreds of pounds of embarrassment and struggle.) Cots, like Daleks, are easily thwarted by stairs, and don’t turn tight corners well. It’s possible to “dolly” the cot on two wheels, but it’s far from ideal. Standard operating procedure, when a death is called in, includes asking the caller about obstacles in the home, such as steps, corners, or narrow hallways. The trouble is, very few callers have ever steered one of our cots. I’ve heard on multiple occasions, “It should be fine. EMS got their stretcher into the room.” EMS stretchers, however, are sprightly, graceful devices compared to the things funeral homes end up with. Whenever someone told me that, it was more likely that our cot would end up parked in the hallway (if not farther away) while my partner and I carried the decedent out.

We also ask about the decedent’s weight when taking the first call, although we don’t always get an accurate assessment. The combination of weight and accessibility factors heavily into how many people we send on the call (assuming available staff), and whether or not we have to call the fire department for a lift assist. When stairs are involved, however, a 6’3” corpse will be unwieldy no matter how thin they may have been.

Far be it from me to tell anyone how to live their life. When it comes to death, however, I’ll happily hand out advice. For example: the third story of your house is not the place to put someone in hospice care! The second floor is bad enough, but perhaps unavoidable; the third is just rude. Have I had to carry someone down two flights of stairs in a Reeves Sleeve while their extended family looked on? Indeed I have, my friends, indeed I have.

Long before I became a mortician, I’d heard that people frequently die in the bathroom—specifically on the toilet. I don’t have the real statistics for these deaths at hand, but calls like that are usually memorable, even if they don’t happen all too often. Let me clarify here two different definitions of dignity. One is the quality of being worthy or esteemed—that’s the dignity all humans are due. The other, formal reserve or seriousness, is not present when someone dies in the bathroom. Not for the deceased, and not for the people moving them.

If you don’t have a third-floor bathroom handy in which to die, other extremely inconvenient options include face-planting in the middle of a doorway or expiring in a recliner. Or you could just slide down between your bed and a wall. If you really want the story of your death to be retold for years to come, die in the summer in a building with no air-conditioning. Or, for variety, in a house on a steep incline during a freak ice storm†.

The necromancer will emerge from the underworld in July! I’ll be answering questions at Readercon in Boston. If you’ll be in attendance, I hope you can make it to the panel. Otherwise, continue to send your questions through our portal, or ask @stillsostrange on the graveyard of Twitter.

* Fun weird fact: not all hospitals have morgues! I can only assume they’re powered by pure optimism.

† The second time in my career I had to call the fire department was during said ice storm, because my van couldn’t make it up the hill to the house. The first was for a heavy person who had died on the kitchen floor of a third-floor apartment. Morticians love the fire department, though I’m sure they don’t love us.


Amanda Downum is the author of The Necromancer Chronicles, Dreams of Shreds & Tatters, and the World Fantasy Award-nominated collection Still So Strange. Not content with armchair necromancy, she is also a licensed mortician. She lives in Austin, TX with an invisible cat. You can summon her at a crossroads at midnight on the night of a new moon, or find her on Twitter as @stillsostrange.

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