Fifty years ago, on 22 October 1966, the Midland Division of the Institute of Embalmers gathered, bow-tied and ballgowned, in Nottingham, for the high point of the social calendar – the annual ladies’ night. The banquet was interrupted by a telegram requesting urgent help. In Aberfan, a Welsh village near Merthyr Tydfil, a 40-foot wall of coal waste had slid down a mountain at over 100mph and hit the Pantglas Junior School, killing 116 children and 28 adults.
Leaving their partners, the volunteer embalmers returned home to collect equipment, embalming fluid and coffins. Travelling through the night, they arrived in Aberfan to join colleagues from across the UK. Some had flown from Northern Ireland on a plane with the seats removed to accommodate stacks of child-size coffins. Billy Doggart was one of them, and it was he who co-ordinated their extraordinary efforts.
Some of the bodies recovered from the school were already wrapped in blankets and laid on the pews of the Bethania Chapel. Makeshift mortuary stations were quickly established. Working without electricity or running water, the embalmers took over from the police and performed their first task: cleaning the bodies for identification. The viscous slurry that had swallowed the school also covered the bodies. One embalmer, fresh from his honeymoon, told me that his first job was to remove a boy’s shirt and take it outside to the waiting parents. He had to hold it aloft and ask whose little boy had been wearing it. Usually in disaster situations such as plane crashes or explosions, identification is a big problem. Not so at Aberfan, where every parent was waiting outside, distraught and eagle-eyed for evidence of their child.
Once identified, each body was further cleaned and embalmed, ready to be placed in a coffin. In the Calvinistic chapel nearby, five embalming units were established in the vestry and a further two in the foyer. Dead bodies deteriorate rapidly, so embalming was an urgent task to save the bereaved from further distress. With nothing but rudimentary equipment and buckets of water that were carried back and forth by volunteers, the embalmers worked quickly and efficiently. Ever mindful of the parents waiting patiently outside, they tried to hide the worst of the damage wrought by the brutal impact.
Many men returned to their day jobs on the Monday after the disaster, having worked non-stop through the weekend in Wales. By the evening, all of the recovered bodies had been treated, and just six volunteers remained, waiting on call all night in case further recoveries were made. From Tuesday to Friday, it was just Billy Doggart, on sentinel watch at the school site, aware that the longer the bodies had lain under the wreckage, the quicker the decomposition would be once they were exposed to air.
Half a century later, disaster rescue work looks different to this. The privately owned disaster management company Kenyon International Emergency Services maintains three deployment-ready, disaster-scale morgues, ready for shipment anywhere in the world.
Yet, however advanced and efficient rescue operations have become, it will always require one human being willing to stand next to the mutilated body of another and treat it with respect and dignity. The aim is the same is it was that day in Aberfan: to give practical help at moments of shock and disaster.
With formaldehyde classified as a human carcinogen, and the whole process certainly not environmentally friendly, (although there are now organic embalming chemicals made with plant oils approved by the Green Burial Council), some argue that the main benefits of embalming are financial. There is a valid debate to be had over how we do it, but in disaster situations there can be no doubt embalming is a compassionate act.
For the past year I’ve been writing a novel about a fictitious embalmer at Aberfan, and have been privileged to interview some of those who were there at the time of the disaster, including Doggart. I’ve spent time with local embalmers and once I even watched one at work. What impressed me, during a shockingly intimate and invasive process, was the care and profound attitude of service with which it was done.
“Most of us are on anti-depressants,” one embalmer said to me matter-of-factly, “and most of us have lost and found, or found and lost our faith at least once”. Inevitably, there is a price to pay for those who go against the grain of human nature and confront our mortality on a daily basis.
The Queen visited Aberfan a week after the disaster, and Doggart was presented to her on behalf of his embalming team. I went there in September, and looked through the book of press cuttings collated for the anniversary. I found no mention of the embalmers, who had quietly arrived to serve a community at the very extremity of human distress and then quietly left again. Heroic by anyone’s standards, these men returned home with a sense of a testing job well done and unspeakable memories seared into their psyches.
A police officer who worked alongside the embalmers later wrote to Billy: “I shall always remember the expressions of relief on the faces of the bereaved who were able to view their children at the Chapel of Rest. . . They will never know the wonderful work that you and your colleagues performed to make this possible.”
Maybe that’s the point. Some heroes, by the very nature of their work, remain unsung.
This article appears in the 25 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage