Warning: This story contains detailed descriptions about things that may happen to the human body while being handled after death.
Derrick Butler brings humor and compassion to the weighty job of ferrying the dead
“People aren’t meant to see these things. No one likes to think about death, so we are ignored.”
Meet Derrick Butler, a normal guy in his mid-twenties who enjoys video games, skateboarding, and grabbing beers with friends. He also happens to be a person who gets called to pick up the bodies of those who’ve passed. Some call them undertakers, body transporters — even weirdos or freaks — but the official job title is Removal Technician.
Butler has reported to the scene of murders, car accidents, hospice care, suicides, and death by natural causes. People of all ages, sizes, and walks of life eventually succumb to the hands of death, and it’s Butler’s job to take them from there.
He comes from a family of caregivers, his late mother a registered nurse and his father a retired police officer. During the illness that led to his mother’s death, Butler discussed his interest in becoming a mortician with her. She jokingly told him, “Everyone’s dying to get in!” Her passing motivated him to begin his journey into the world of death. He plunged in, having no idea what to expect.
As with any occupation, a body transporter has certain duties at the top of their daily to-do list. Butler begins by reviewing scheduled cremations at the funeral home where he works. He does a “minimum prep,” which starts with verifying the identity of the person on the slab, matching their face with a provided photo and checking their name tag.
Funeral homes may offer cosmetics and hair washing, usually done when there is a viewing service prior to cremation. Some other gruesome, day-to-day details: the deceased’s mouth is sewn shut and “contacts” with little pricks are placed under their eyelids to keep them closed.
“Sometimes they even have to plug up your butt if you leak too much!” Butler laughs.
After the initial run-through, he sits back and waits for pick-up assignments from the call service. When he gets back to the care center with a body, he is responsible for unwrapping it and documenting the physical details of the deceased. A checklist helps with this step. “For example,” he says, “if someone has an IV, you’re going to want to check that off, because if the hole is open, the embalming fluid will drip out. It’s good to let the embalmer know to put a little dab of super glue to avoid that.”
The transportation van Butler drives can hold up to four bodies, separated by a lift and gurneys. Removal technicians are responsible for cleaning out their van weekly and the processing center (called a “care center”) daily.
Butler emphasizes how important it is for hospital workers to leave the deceased alone to avoid a messy situation when he removes a body. “It’s hard enough dealing with skin slips, blood purging, and the weight and smell of a person,” he says. The body bags that hospitals use rip easily, which can result in fluids spewing out while in transport and the mortuary cooler. “People leak all the time,” he says. “Their body just releases everything — it’s unavoidable. And it’s our job to clean it up.”
Asked about the smell in the cooler, Butler says it’s not that bad, because it’s about as cold as a restaurant refrigerator. But he can’t avoid the unforgettable stench of decomposition at the initial pick up. He gives smoking some credit for helping him deal with that.
The pay certainly isn’t helping much. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, morticians, undertakers, and funeral arrangers make an average of $23-$26 dollars an hour. However, Nevada death care wages are on the lower end, at only $14-$16 dollars an hour. These numbers were last updated in May 2021, but in Butler’s experience, not much has changed. Negative stigma is one barrier to fair compensation, he says.
There are no formal education requirements (other than a high school degree) to become a removal technician, but employees do need to abide by local and state laws, as well as company procedures, to properly care for the deceased. At the same time, death care is an emotionally and physically demanding job. (Butler jokes that it’s a great workout.)
The grisly responsibilities and low wages can lead to quick burnout. During Butler’s first few months in the industry, he saw some twenty people come and go. But a certain kind of person, who can stomach the job, may stick around and last for years. Butler says he relies on his coworkers and father to get through it.
For him, the hardest part of the job is dealing with the families of the deceased. “You never know how the family is going to react,” he says. “Sometimes a family member becomes aggressive when you need to take their loved one away, almost wanting to fight me. Others are nonchalant about it.”
Yet families also offer an opportunity for one of the job’s rare rewards. Butler feels it’s important to be there for them, showing empathy and respect. He’s even had to face the reality of death within his own circle. Butler recalls the time he saw an old friend while picking up their deceased grandparent. The two men embraced and laughed at the randomness of bumping into each other under such circumstances
“I’m getting to an age where I’m going to start running into people I know,” Butler jokes.
Clearly, for this Removal Technician, a dark sense of humor is a job requirement. Φ