In a bar in Astoria on a recent weeknight, comedian Lauryn Petrie bet the audience that their pandemic was boring compared to hers.
Instead of baking sourdough and binging Netflix, she was cutting up dead people. A gasp, then Petrie, 38, explains.
When COVID-19 arrived, her dreams of touring the country doing stand-up were put on hold as venues closed and live shows stopped.
She spent over a year working as a mortuary technician, from April 2020 to June 2021, despite having no previous experience in the field. She emerged with bloody Crocs, a deep knowledge of human anatomy and a changed perspective on the world of the living. And her morbid sense of humor remained intact.
She sought the job to avoid being homeless again, as she was in the mid-2000s, and to continue the upward trajectory she started after hitting “rock bottom” in 2019, when she was in what she described as an abusive relationship and lived in a windowless room in a Bushwick apartment infested with bed bugs.
“There’s people dying everywhere. I bet they need help,” Petrie recalled thinking to herself. “I figured you don’t need a degree to put bodies in refrigerated trucks.”
Petrie first worked at Kings County Hospital, carrying bodies to refrigerated storage. It reminded her of a podcast she used to work on about conspiracy theories and how some listeners thought COVID was a hoax. It was never more real to her.
“There was a time when I was in the ICU, literally waiting for people to die, with the stretcher and the bag, because they needed that room for other patients,” Petrie said. At times, bags broke and bodies fell out.
When she handled a particularly bloody bag, figuring it was a homicide and not a COVID death, she felt a vibe shift: “New York is coming back! People are leaving their houses again!”
Dedicated to the Craft
After three months, she started working for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), which manages “mass fatality incidents’’ and staffed up in the wake of the pandemic to handle the increase in caseloads. Even as all COVID deaths didn’t necessarily require autopsies, the office must care for unclaimed bodies.
Petrie initially spent about a month stationed at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park, where bodies were stored in refrigerated trailers long-term until families could afford a funeral.
When she started working in the OCME’s Manhattan office, she had to retrieve bodies from the scenes of death. She learned how, for example, to pull a large man out of a bathtub so as not to damage the body. But the most engaging part came in mid-August, when she began assisting doctors with autopsies.
“I was super excited because I thought maybe comedy will never come back. Maybe I’ll have to do this for the rest of my life,” she said. “Maybe this is like a whole new beginning for me, so I’m taking it really seriously.”
She bought clinical scrubs and a medical cap with Beetlejuice on it. She covered herself with a smock and two pairs of gloves, stretched a hairnet over head, popped on a mask and put on a face shield.
The first autopsy she observed was a stabbing. When the colleague she was shadowing turned the body over, Petrie was struck by how blood poured out the wounds, a sight she deemed “horrific, but so cool.”
She found she enjoyed working in the autopsy room because it required technique and improvement. She put pressure on herself to be accurate, even doing extra research when her shift was over.
The doctor coached her how to make a Y-incision on the body, a task that turned out to be easier than she anticipated.
“The only thing you have to be careful of is when you get towards the belly, you don’t want to go too hard and puncture the intestines,” she said. “You go around the belly button.”
The hard part, she said, was working at the speed the doctors set, which she compared to a restaurant pace. She’d have to remove the organs and expose the brain for the doctor to examine.
“I get more nervous doing comedy than I ever did doing autopsies,” she said, ticking off her worries about securing high-profile bookings and dealing with imposter syndrome. “That stuff bothers me more than cutting up dead people.”
With children especially, Petrie took extra care to make cuts perfectly, and her handiwork elicited compliments from the doctors.
“I took a lot of pride, artistically, that my head cuts were beautiful, keeping them low below the ears so when their hair’s down, you could never even see they were cut,” she said.
Doing autopsies required striking a balance between respect and irreverence, and she found her dark humor mirrored by some of the doctors. She’d watch the news to get a preview of her next day’s work.
While stomachs might churn at the mere thought of guts and gore, working in the morgue was a full sensory experience and Petrie was primed for it, approaching death with fascination instead of repulsion.
“It’s just human butchery,” she said. “I’ve been looking at crime scene photos for fun my whole life so none of this got to me.”
Petrie would take fingerprints by putting her hand into the glove of skin that came off the body. She got used to the horrific smell of “decomp” — morgue-speak for decomposing bodies — which reminded her of rotten meat. She’d come home and find dried blood splattered on her neck after days spent helping with autopsies.
‘It Makes You Respect Life More’
What gave her pause were the many deaths she noticed that were from drug overdoses, which greatly increased during the pandemic.
The city recorded the highest-ever number of accidental drug overdose deaths between 2020 and 2021, OCME Acting Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Jason Graham said last week at a City Council budget hearing. Fentanyl is the “most common drug involved in overdose deaths,” according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Petrie had overcome her own addiction to drugs, and she’d overdosed in the past. When she worked on overdose cases, she would think about how that could’ve been her.
Even as the months rolled by and the work became mundane, Petrie couldn’t help but hold onto individual stories. They’re what kept her from feeling numb each day.
She paid attention to the tattoos she had to slice through during an autopsy. Sometimes she remembered the names of the dead and would look up their social media accounts. When she removed bodies from apartments, she noticed family photos, decorations and whether the bed was made.
“It’s interesting how life has just stopped,” she said. “I want to see what their life was before it abruptly ended. It could be anyone.”
Outside work, she had started a relationship with the person she’d later marry. She wondered if any of the bodies on her autopsy table had a chance to feel, while they were alive, as loved as she did.
Petrie left the medical examiner gig last summer. Her morale was low, and she was ready to give comedy another shot.
“Every person should have to work in the morgue for like three months of their life and just see it because it makes you respect life more. It makes you realize how quickly you could die,” she said.
Petrie now lives in Ridgewood, Queens, with her new husband, and they celebrated their first wedding anniversary last Tuesday. She’s working a job in a furniture warehouse by day.
By night, she’s back to making the rounds on the comedy circuit, performing two or three times a week at bars and clubs around the city, including recently at Carolines on Broadway. She wants to become a regular at some of the clubs and be seen by a wider variety of audiences.
“I feel like I’ve finally really leaned into my voice,” Petrie said. “I think part of it was having comedy taken away from me for a year while being surrounded by death and being faced with the brevity of life.”
Her morgue stories pop up in her stand-up through one-liners and extended riffs.
She’s also writing a memoir about her time in the morgue, relying on the notes she typed into her phone during lunch breaks.
Months out of the morgue, Petrie finds she craves a “death dose” every so often to remember life’s fragility, and she’ll google for an image of violence or gore.
“If you can get past the point where it haunts your dreams and doesn’t hurt you, it’s very motivating,” she said. “It helps me start my day in a positive way: This isn’t me. I have a chance today. I’m gonna make the best of it.”