Dept. names new facility in honour of morgue technician
By Colleen MacPherson
The first thing Don Gurnsey said when he joined the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology in 1981 as the morgue technician was that the outdated, unsanitary morgue that he describes as "a dungeon", had to be changed. Twenty-two years later, Gurnsey finally got not only a renovated morgue but also a sign on its door that bears his name.
The Gurnsey Laboratorium, located in the basement of the Health Sciences Building, was named for the long-time technician after undergoing major renovations. Unfortunately, the morgue was only in operation about two months before Gurnsey retired from the University, but "I worked in it just long enough to know that it was working fine".
One unique feature of the morgue is that it may well be the only facility on campus named after a support staff person. Inquiries to the University naming committee and University Archives produced no evidence of any other staff person recognized in this way.
But it is a most fitting honour according to the man who suggested it. Department Head Bernhard Juurlink said University facilities "are usually named after an academic or someone who gave a lot of money" but in this case the department decided to take a different approach.
"Don was such a real pleasure to have in the department," Juurlink said. "He could foresee problems and offer solutions, he cheerfully helped anyone (and) went out of his way for students and faculty. Nobody had a bad word to say about him."
For his part, Gurnsey said he is honoured by the naming but "if it's named after anyone, it should be Dr. Juurlink. He pushed so hard. He took the bull by the horns to get the renovation done."
Asked about the word laboratorium in the official title, Juurlink said that it was chosen because it seemed more acceptable than the word morgue. "Nobody wants a morgue named after them."
Nobody, that is, except Gurnsey who quickly dismisses the suggestion that his line of work is morbid. In fact, "fascinating" is how he describes it.
After graduating from school in a small town near Weyburn, Gurnsey said he was unable to pursue his dream of studying medicine due to family poverty so he took a job in a local store while trying to decide what to do with his life. On his way home one Wednesday afternoon ("Stores closed on Wednesday afternoons back then"), he was approached by a funeral director who asked the young man to help move a casket into a church for a funeral. The man then asked if Gurnsey would help with the funeral "and afterward, he said 'Do you know of anyone who's looking for a job?' and I said 'I am.'".
A two-year apprenticeship program with a funeral home in Weyburn, that included classes at the University each year, was the start of a 14-year career in the funeral business. Never having given up entirely on the medicine dream and his fascination with anatomy, Gurnsey jumped at the chance to work at the University. Besides, "I liked the hours".
Gurnsey's role in the morgue was the embalming, preparation and storage of bodies for use by students in a variety of programs. He also had responsibility for the University's body bequethal program, a part of the job he particularly liked.
"I enjoyed the contact with the families. Even though they've lost a loved one, the fact that they're so unselfish made most of these people very easy to deal with."
And even in retirement, Gurnsey hasn't entirely left what Juurlink termed "the death business".
He is working part-time for a local funeral home and continues as a member of the education committee of Saskatchewan Funeral and Cremation Services.
In fact, just prior to his interview with On Campus News, Gurnsey was supervising an exam for a student interested in pursuing a career in the funeral business - or maybe in The Gurnsey Laboratorium.