Inside the Collection

Pushing up daisies- a mortuary table

Mortuary table positioned outside
Powerhouse Museum: Collection

This mortuary table was used in the mortuary at St Joseph’s Hospital, Auburn, in Sydney’s western suburbs in the 1940s and 1950s. It was used for both teaching and medical purposes. It was also used to prepare bodies for transport to funeral homes. The mortuary at St Joseph’s was little used after the 1950s, as post-mortems were being done in specialist centres by then. The mortuary was converted to a laundry in the 1990s and one of the graduate nurses of St Joseph’s, Lorna Higgs, rescued the table and it was installed as a potting table in her backyard at Yagoona. When she passed away, her daughter, Pauline Higgs, also a graduate nurse of St Joseph’s was renovating the house at Yagoona and asked if the donor would be interesting in taking the table. Ms Cosgrove did rescue the table; and is also a graduate nurse of St Joseph’s. Provenance has been kept from installation at St Joseph’s up until this time.

To save the table from damage, and to have the object’s importance recognised, Ms Cosgrove donated the mortuary table to the Powerhouse Museum in 2010.

The practice of post mortem, human dissection and embalming has been recorded as far back as 3,000 BC in Ancient Egypt. Autopsies and body preparation have been a part of nearly all cultures for religious, legal and educational purposes. Some cultures are resistant to the practice of post mortem as they believe it is disrespectful and impinges on funerary rites.

Mortuary practice is an important part of human culture. It is the final aspect of medical, pathological and cosmetic activity performed on the human body. The table is an essential component of the mortuary. Along with other mandatory aspects, such as cooled body storage, appropriate instruments (of which the Powerhouse Museum has some excellent examples), good lighting, adequate ventilation and personal protective equipment, the mortuary table must be maintained to the highest standard of repair and cleanliness. This model is made from porcelain – an easily decontaminated material – and is designed to allow liquid material to drain easily away.

The table’s manufacture and design are coldly utilitarian, and yet have a soft aesthetic. The drainage channels and large sink leave little to the imagination; however, the porcelain that allows extreme ease of cleaning of body fluids and matter is also an attractive piece of craftsmanship. This is why the mortuary table has survived five decades: people who had worked with the table saw its beauty and value and saved it. The table began life as a part of human dissection apparatus, but went on to be a potting table in a suburban backyard. It fulfilled both roles superbly.

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