the temporary morgue at the university of chicago

I was stunned the other day to discover that my campus has plans for a temporary morgue in case of emergency. They read as follows:

The Hospital morgue has a limited capacity to store the deceased. If the Hospital is no longer able to accept the deceased they will contact the Chicago Department of Public Health to request refrigerated trailers. While waiting for the refrigerated trailer to be delivered, the following sites could be used as temporary morgues. The temporary morgues must be capable of being secured.

They are:

  1. Gross Anatomy (BSLC)
  2. First floor Henry Crown Field House
    • Batting practice room
    • Racket ball courts

The following supplies will be needed to store the deceased:

  • Body bags
  • Portable air conditioning units

I emphasize three particularly surreal aspects of this “plan” (if “plan” is the right word for this imprecise and vaguely menacing document). First, the selection of sites: “gross anatomy” – which means the lab in med school where they teach the human body through dissection – and the racketball court. Presumably, the former is already equipped to handle corpses, while the latter benefits from being a large flat space. And second, the central theme of refrigerating the dead (in trailers or just with portable A.C.): no doubt this is to keep the corpses from decaying. Finally, the note on security – “morgues must be capable of being secured.” Admittedly, it would be tasteless to leave corpses lying out on the lawn free for the taking, but can one really imagine any substantial security risk at a morgue? What, precisely, would be the plausible motive of anyone seeking to pester the dead on a college campus?

This leads us to a more interesting aspect of the document: its great illusion of solidity, of clarity, of rational authority. It has the style of a carefully planned bureaucratic document, one that covers all possible contingencies in a reasonable fashion. But actually this is only the simulation of such a reasonable plan. First of all, there is no discussion of the circumstances in which the university might need to implement it. What fantasy of disaster would lead to the racketball courts being covered with dozens of corpses? More to the point, if there is (let’s say) a pandemic or a massacre, is it likely that the administrators will still be at their desks consulting their carefully planned emergency protocol? Surely the plan will be useless and forgotten at whatever implausible moment it would most be needed.

Furthermore, on inspection, this plan is entirely free of any practical details as to how it might be implemented. It doesn’t say where the body bags or air conditioners come from, or who will move the bodies, or keep them “secure,” or where the batting practice will be rescheduled for the duration of the emergency. In fact, it basically doesn’t say anything that isn’t obvious, like that bodies should be kept in the hospital, or barring that, in the first available flat empty space. Whatever the real logistical difficulties of this imaginary emergency might be, this document gives no clues to their solution. It announces that there is a plan, without being remotely useful as such.

It turns out that this plan is put together by an elaborately organized emergency management team, whose “commander” is the Vice President for Administration and Chief Financial Officer (currently one Nin Chinniah). It has a policy group and a finance officer and representatives from many university divisions, primarily the administrative, logistical and police. It seems obviously the product of an administrative imperative to plan for every emergency, to give everything a policy and a structure, and to provide an appearance of preparedness to the public. In this era of campus shootings, administrators are no doubt under pressure to look ready for every contingency; perhaps they can even be held liable for their preparedness. So perhaps this “plan” is understandable. But it remains ludicrous and, it seems to me, more than a little morbid.