From the mortuary: Lydia Amsterdam making a living among the dead
By Shikema Dey
As humans, we all share a sense of morbid curiosity.
It is inescapable, even if it is only the urge to look at a car crash or by watching horror movies, we all have it, and we all satisfy it to a certain degree.
But one woman, Lydia Amsterdam, who hails from New Amsterdam, Berbice, turned it into a lifelong career.
She is a mortician, though funeral director is the preferred term. It sounds safer and more approachable.
Working in the funeral industry or the death-care industry, she is surrounded by dead bodies on a daily basis. And on International Women’s Day 2022, the News Room recognises her over six decades of work in the mortuary.
We caught up with Ms. Amsterdam at the Arokium Funeral Home before she started preparing her workspace to commence the dressing of a body.
While death is associated with sadness, darkness, and fear, Ms. Amsterdam was quite the opposite; she was bubbly throughout the interview and told her story with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
It all started when she was at the age of 18. She said her aunt took her to watch how bodies were prepared for burial.
To her, it was a fascinating experience, one that she took a keen interest in because not many women in her time were practicing morticians. It was a male-dominated profession because women were seen as too afraid of being around the dead, she related.
And from then, she vowed to play a hand in changing that bias. Ms. Amsterdam is now 82-years-old, a mother of three, a grandmother of 20, and New Amsterdam’s oldest mortician.
“It is an experience every day; every day you gain from it.”
Ms. Amsterdam received no official training; she has no certificates or degrees – only operating with the experience she gained over the years.
She treats the dead “like normal persons” and they are prepared for burial with a few minor tweaks to ensure they look the best.
Her daily list of items include methylated spirits, cotton wool, cotton balls, formaldehyde, naphthalene balls, towels, soap, powder, towels, and gloves.
“The basic thing you do, when you get the dead, you first have to belch it, to make sure it does not belch on you when you are bathing it or else that can be dangerous to anyone who is bathing a body,” Ms. Amsterdam explained.
“Then you bathe the dead like any normal person, dry the dead skin and put on the clothes. If the dead is stiff, you use the methylated spirits to loose up the joints so they are straight in the coffin.
“Then when you put the dead into the box, you put on the fineries- the earrings, the lipstick…sometimes you have to fix the eyes so you use cotton wool, you stuff the nose and the mouth with cotton wool and then that is it.”
The steps Ms. Amsterdam walked through applies for the normal bodies or the “fresh dead”, but she also had to work on bodies that were decomposed and those require much more attention and treatment.
“For those dead, you got to get spice and sometimes kerosene oil to keep down that bad smell and the formaldehyde,” she explained.
Many myths surround the death industry, including ghosts haunting those who prepare the dead and many would expect the mortician to have some level of fear of the job. But for Ms. Amsterdam, she has none.
“Never…never scared, because I just had the mind to do it. The dead knows nothing,” she said.
And as odd as it sounds, Ms. Amsterdam has a favourite body to prepare: those who have died by drowning.
Why? It was the first body she had to prepare when she started the profession.
Her aftercare routine involves drinking a lot of water, never alcohol, to flush out the germs.
She does not consume alcohol or smoke and when she is not working, Ms. Amsterdam is tending to her garden.
And for Ms. Amsterdam, this profession is one she intends to stick to until the day she passes on. In the meantime, she plans to pass on her knowledge to women who are also fascinated by making a living among the dead.
“It is a pleasure to do this work,” she shared with a bright smile.