[published in the London Guardian Weekly in 2006]
All those who have entered through the front door in the city’s morgue, that is to say, the living, have passed by the monumental statue of Cuatlicue, the Aztec goddess of the earth, life and death, which stands guard outside the building. Her head and skirt are made from snakes, and she wears a skull upon her belt so that everyone will understand that death is a central part of life. Cuatlicue died by her own hand. Had she lived in our time, her suicide would have landed her in this building, although through the rear entrance.
The city morgue first opened its doors in 1960 to the dead of Mexico City. Before this, the morgue was located in a chapel behind the graveyard of a hospital. Renowned doctors and generals of the army performed the autopsies, and the place was reputed to reek for miles around.
Seen from outside, the building, based on the New York city morgue building, is a squat, square, unassuming building. Inside, the fluorescent lighting, the long, narrow hallways, the small rooms and the white tiles on the walls make the place look like a public elementary school. (In fact, there are classes held on the top floor for postgraduate students in Medicine and Law). It is a three-story building with a basement large enough to hold up to 70 corpses, although the bodies are mostly kept in the metal cabinets on the second floor.
All violent or sudden deaths in Mexico City end up here in the city morgue. Last year 5,500 corpses were brought in, an average of over 15 bodies a day. The number one cause of death in Mexico City in 2004 was traffic accidents, followed by homicides, accidents in the home, suicides, and accidents in other places (there were more deaths in public bath houses than in schools, for example). The number of men who were killed in homicides or in traffic accidents was three times that of women. The most common homicide is during a hold-up or robbery, followed by fights brought about by insults, and Sunday is the day with the most activity. For suicides, men represent five times more deaths than women, and by far the most frequent cause is depression. Asphyxiation is the preferred method of suicide, followed by the use of weapons, and the most common place is in a home or in a hospital. Men die in accidents in public places fifteen times more often than women. Traffic accidents, homicides and suicides occur most often in men between 20 and 30 years old who are married, employed and have attended school at least through junior high (not a single person with a postgraduate degree died in 2004).
In the last four years, the number of homicides in Mexico City has remained constant (about 1,000 a year), suicides oscillate between 400 and 600 yearly, traffic accidents and accidents in the home have gone down slightly, while natural deaths have decreased by 30%.
Most corpses arrive at the morgue at night. They are brought directly to the amphitheater to be identified. If they have no ID, they undergo genetic, dental and fingerprint examines and the results are checked against criminal records.
During the autopsy each body reveals the story of its own death to those who know how to read it. The body is examined, and all the stains, bleeding and belongings are described before the body is washed. Afterwards, photographs are taken of the lesions and traumas related to death (over 75,000 photographs were taken last year), which serve as the basis for the determination of time and cause of death.
All the bodies that enter the morgue are opened up. The procedure begins with the skull and the removal of the brain matter, then the neck is opened in order to search for lesions of the trachea, esophagus and the main arteries, and the thorax is opened in order to inspect the heart, inner organs, veins and nerves. Inside the abdomen the investigation starts with the liver, gall bladder, the kidneys, bladder, pancreas, and the veins. The stomach and intestines are inspected last, since they contain gastric or intestinal waste that could contaminate the other organs.
Samples of blood, urine and skin tissue are also taken for toxic and pathological studies. Most of the sophisticated machines in the pathology laboratory are used to detect the presence of controlled substances, such as marijuana, cocaine, opium, amphetamines, etc. (The presence of marijuana is very easy to detect as it accumulates in the fatty tissue and can remain in a body for weeks.). In almost all violent deaths, the presence of drugs or alcohol is detected in the bloodstream.
Apart from these tests used to determine time and cause of death, there are also experiments being conducted in the morgue. Underneath a magnetic field apparatus is a small cage with rats inside. The rats are fed different controlled substances along with their regular diet for a period of time and are then sacrificed. The dead bodies of the rats are left to rot, at which time flies inevitably come and deposit their eggs within the corpses. After the larva feeds from the dead rat, these worms are collected and analyzed to see if there are traces of the controlled substances the rats had consumed. This experiment will determine whether corpses that are brought in to the morgue in a state of advanced decomposition (there is a special room that receives these corpses) can be analyzed through the chemical composition of their worms inside.
Once the autopsy has been performed, the inner organs are returned to their place of origin, all except for the brain. As the brain has a tendency to melt, it is placed inside the abdomen with the rest of the viscera, which is then sewn up, thus transforming the corpse into its own body bag.
Usually, the bodies are handed over to their families within twenty-four hours. Jane and John Does often stay in the morgue up to two weeks. If no one claims them, they are sent to the universities. If the corpse is unfit for study, they are sent to a common grave in a local cemetery.
Out of 1,000 corpses that arrive at the city morgue, 100 need additional studies to determine the cause of death, and for five of these the cause of death is never determined. This is the case of a 33 year-old woman who was found hung by a sheet around her neck in an insane asylum. The autopsy revealed 16 stab-like perforations of her liver, eight in the lungs and 15 in her diaphragm, although the skin was unbroken and there were no lesions on the outside of her body. She was declared dead from asphyxiation, but the cause of the perforations was never discovered.
The morgue has had its share of tragic cases. Heading home after the morgue’s Christmas party, a man who worked there was run over by a car a few blocks away. He was brought back to the morgue, just minutes after celebrating with his co-workers, just hours after working there, but this time he came through the rear entrance.
In its 40 years of existence within this building, the Mexico City morgue has had to confront some of the country’s biggest tragedies: the student massacre of 1968; a subway accident at the end of the 70s; a Western Airlines plane crash (piles of corpses were laid out in the hallways and only photographs and fingerprints were taken before the bodies were burnt); the ’85 earthquake (there were so many bodies that a nearby baseball field was used as an extension of the morgue); narco-satanic murders in ’89; and a fire that consumed a discotheque at the beginning of this millennium.
In the ’85 earthquake in Mexico City, several government buildings surrounding the city morgue collapsed. The morgue building held up, although it was left teetering to one side, officially recognized as being at risk of falling in the case of another, even much milder, earthquake. A new morgue building, designed with cheery colors (mostly orange) and several post-modern details in the style of a mall or convention center, is scheduled to be built in 2006. Buildings, like people, are also mortal, and all must perish sooner or later, violently or otherwise. With the demolition of this old, squat, somewhat spooky building, one of the last victims of the ’85 earthquake, death will never be the same in Mexico City.