February 19, 2008

An Apology for the Dead


As a rookie cop working in Harlem in the early 1990’s, I was introduced to death at a rate which illustrated the horrors life on a grand scale. Prior to being assigned there to work, my relatively sheltered existence only saw death through the rosy prism of a half-opened coffin and heavily applied post-mortem cosmetics. The deceased I encountered were relatives, neighbors, and even a best friend; all of them expired quietly and “naturally” and looked peaceful in their repose.

On the job, and not just in Harlem but everywhere I worked as a police officer, death has an unkind visage. Only those who experience the malodorous wretchedness of a lifeless body which has been exposed for a while can appreciate how vile it is. The mere memory of such a putrid stench causes anti-peristalsis. The stink never leaves the olfactory nerves. It’s a haunting odor, destined to return after one’s own death.

A sergeant of mine was ridiculed once for praying over a dead body at crime scene. The family of the victim was not present and he and his squad were awaiting for the coroner to arrive. Harmless enough, he thought to pay respects to this fallen person. Callous though, were the restless officers in his charge who’d seen too much and thought his actions ostentatious.

My own eyes grew weary of the abundance of death which is the reality of a big city such as New York. Eight million people live there, and a million or more commute to Manhattan and the other boroughs every day to work. There are murders, accidents, suicides, and natural deaths in numbers which are sobering to the uninitiated. Death does brisk business in Gotham City. It is easy for the morgue workers, fire fighters, emergency medical technicians, and even police officers who see unabashed death scenes long before a funeral director casts a magic wand over the deceased, to become as cold and distant as are also the eyes of the departed.

That is why the praying sergeant was mocked. It was not his faith they expressed amusement at; it as the gesture of dignity which he gave to a person whom others, in their defense, regarded as a mere object. Self protection against guts and gore often means removing reality from the details. It is not a dead person, but a cadaver; an object to be investigated and removed to a place where folks with ice water running through their veins do even more dirty work: an autopsy, a dissection, and examinations in all those places where maggots and vermin thrive. Pray over that? To do so is a reminder of what awaits steely eyed cops no matter how much they are told they are super heroes; and that is their own demise.

For myself, I remained civil with those whom I handled. There are faces, limbs, babies, and teenagers who glance at me from the corners of my paradoxical sleep while I am in bed. One particular night, we were called to a small apartment where the folks who lived there had a tenant. It is not uncommon for families in the city to rent rooms for extra money, and in this case the couple who lived there went through pains to respect the privacy of the young, thirty something year old woman who took up residence in their spare room down the hall. This tenant was diabetic. Health care is often unaffordable, and in her case, not available. Her insulin was scarce and she had meager means to obtain this necessary medication. After missing their house guest for about a day or so, the husband and wife made the decision to open her door and check on her. To their horror, the woman lay dead on her sofa bed. When we arrived, details became clear that this poor young lady slipped into a coma and passed away.

My squad sergeant assigned various tasks to the officers on the scene to expedite the investigation. With the husband present, we took inventory of the small room and began the tedious process of cataloging and vouchering her valuables which were few. It was my duty to remove her jewelry as the medical examiner will not collect a body with necklaces, rings, watches, and the like as they do not want to be accused of theft and these items are to be submitted to the probate courts.

The young woman had many body piercings, several in each ear, and she had dozens of bangles on each wrist. Removing these proved difficult as rigor mortis had set in and I needed to move her several times to take these items off her. Then, I had to slip off her rings. The best way to do that was to lubricate her fingers. The landlord offered us a small tub of soap and water. I took my time until my sergeant began to hurry me along.

I stopped what I was doing and told him that I was taking care of this as best as I could. He snapped at me again as he believed the coroner had arrived and he was anxious to leave the apartment. I told him once more, in no uncertain terms, that I was doing the best I could and short of using wire cutters, the rings wouldn’t come off any faster. He was miffed, but what could he do? I wasn’t lazy, and there is no special training for handling dead bodies. Trust me, I would have asked him to do it if I had the authority; but I didn’t. The sergeant was forced to wait.

Getting back to my unpleasant task, I washed this woman’s fingers in the warm, soapy water supplied by her friend, the landlord. She surrendered her rings to me. Then, I placed her hands gently on her chest after pulling her blanket up much the same way her mom or dad may have tucked her in at night when she was a young girl.

“I’m sorry, dear.” I remember saying. She deserved at least that much. It was her death, her final repose, that poor young woman; and like my other sergeant who openly prayed for the dead, I was remorseful.

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29 comments:

joderebe said...

We certainly do have the same kind of memories; accidents, suicides etc. You are right. As a military photographer, I have seen my fair share. At times the faces that I didn't quite register through my camera lenses seem to appear in my dreams, coming out of nowhere staring back, as if it was somehow an attempt to stay alive.
Love the story telling aspect of this Mike. Well done fellow wanderer.
~JD
Yeah the tattoo was foolish but it's still cool. :-)

Kimchihead said...

I've always believed that you can treat the deceased with dignity while maintaining your emotional distance. Well said, Mike!

AntiBarbie said...

That story was very touching Mike. It speaks volumes about your character that you felt the desire to treat that young woman with dignity after she passed.

I have always had a ton of respect for any occupation in which a person has to encounter death on a regular basis. To be honest, I don't think I could stomach it. Even stories on the evening news about dead children affect me something awful.

Swubird said...

Mr. Grudge:

It's difficult to respond to a story like that one. I've never seen anything in my entire life that even remotely compares with what your eyes have seen. The memories and nightmares you must have - while the rest of us dream of fishing, or flying, or bikinis at the beach - it's sad. But I am glad that you are articulate enough to write these things down. Maybe writing helps. I don't know. A friend of mine found a dead body once. That was twenty years ago. He tells me that he can still it. Horrible.

Very good post.

footiam said...

There is an idea from India about contemplating death which I really like. If people think and meditate over death, people will see the fleeting nature of life, that life is just not permanent. Hence, there is no holding too hard to an object which we love. Seeing many deaths is not a very pleasant experience, I suppose, but since there are so many deaths around, there's not just the opportunity to contemplate. There is something to motivate.

Swubird said...

Mr. Grudge:

I left out a word. After twenty years, my fried says he can still smell it.

Peter said...

Hi! I would say that the majority of those that come across death in its most gruesome would over time and not long I might add, put up a wall to protect them from showing physical and visible emotions that would hinder them in their line of work.

Hand in hand with this and rightly so; no apologies made, is the sick sense of humour that shields them from having darker thoughts.

Anyone succumbing to what others might see as possible failure could put a chink in the armour of those that pretend that the matter at hand should and never affect them.

But having said that, this armour is rightly used to help keep peace with the mind.

The different responses from hardened observers are varied. On occasions some can be unkind while others say nothing at all.

But I think they do this to repair that chink in their armour and to prevent them being the same as the one that gives way. A form of self-preservation you might say.

Others are left to pick up the pieces of those who have served and given way to decades of seeing things that are too horrible to mention.

With anyone outside the job only seeing such things within their worst nightmares.

The job not only has a duty of care to all that are served but to present and past members no matter how long they have served.

Thank you for listening.

Regards,
Peter

Winter said...

Excellent post. I work at a mortuary/cemetery. Back when I first started they used to do "cross training", which wasn't really cross training. It was really the opportunity to spend a day with another department to see what they did and how they did it. This helped us to understand the pressures they were under so that we could better work as a team.

The day I spent with our 2 embalmers was fascinating, gruesome, and heartbreaking. It's true that the smell of decomposing human flesh is something you never forget. We get decomps fairly often because we do some cremations for the county. Those death are always sad. Really, all the deaths are sad. We strive to preserve the dignity of the dead and to give comfort to their families.

It's tough to be in an industry that deals with death on any level. It certainly can make you more aware of your own mortality.

Mike French said...

Well done M2 for showing that woman the respect we all deserve. The moment we deal with people as if they are discarded products is the day we die to ourselves.

There must be other ways for people to cope with that type of work.

How did you cope?

M1

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi JD,
"staring back, as if it was somehow an attempt to stay alive.
That's a thoughful way to put it. I suppose that's what they mean when they say you'll live on in those who love you. I our cases, we did not love those who we saw after their deaths. Still, they cling to us, like you say, in an effort to live on. Thanks for the insightful comment. -Mike
P.S. It seems we do share a lot of the same experiences. There's plenty to talk about over some beer, eh?

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Kimchihead,
You are definitely correct, my friend. you can be respectful of the dead, all it takes is a bit of effort and the ability to not become too callous. I appreciate your comment here. Thanks. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Antibarbie,
I was never able to get used to seeing dead children. They always haunt me. There was a young boy who drowned at the beach in Far Rockaway who suffered terribly whose decomposed body washed ashore. His eyes visit me when I least expect it. Then, there was a newborn who died in spite of the best efforts of the emts and later the emergency room docotrs and nurses. His death was a tragedy which underlined the devastation which crack cocaine has on babies when the mothers use the drug while pregnant. the list goes on and I am bothered even writing about it here. I don't know how i did it, but I did, and many times I regret having ever joined the police force. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Swubird,
Writing about my expereinces definetly helps me a lot. And I appreciate your comments here. Your friend is right, the odor never leaves you. Thanks Swubird. -Mike

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi footiam,
I want to thank you for offering me an entire new way to view my expereiences. It helps. I can always rely on you to offer and intelligent, researched opinion on any topic I discuss here. Well done, footiam. Thank you. -Mike

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Peter,
I want to thank you for explaining intelligently the process of "dark humor" which goes along with any profession dealing with death. I considered mentioning it here, but the piece was too long and I needed to edit various aspects of this subject out to maintain any semblence of brevity. I knew that someone in my audience would be able to explain this, and coming from you, a healthcare professional, you did a fine job of it. I am always flattered to have such intelligent folks such as you coming here. Thank you Peter. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Winter,
I agree with you that dealing with death on a regular basis makes one more aware of their own mortality. Thank you for sharing your expereinces here and welcome to my humble, little blog. I just read your latest post on the 13 famous people you'd like to screw. very cool, and I agree with your #3 pick Kelly Monaco (http://winterblog.winterheart.com) Thanks, winter. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Mike,
For a long time I did not cope. Please see Peter's comments on dark humor and putting up armor. A lot of defense mechanisms when dealing grusome death is denial. You say to yourself "that happened to that poor bastard but not to me." Writing about my expereinces helps now because I am able to view the experiences with a disatnt view and think critically and artculate my thoughts. having a discission in ths type of forum with good folks like you helps as well. Thnaks for the contribution, mate. -Mike 2

P.S. So, you want to be a police man? lol.

Anna said...

Mike this is really interesting story. I really have hard time coping with death, and I have been exposed to it since I was five when my grandfather passed away. I know you have experienced different scenarios of death being as police officer, so it is little bit different. However, over the period of time, I have last friends drowning, in car accidents, family working on construction, and I faced some myself when in car accidents (lucky me to come out untouched, just few bruises). But one of your incidences is very similar to what happened to my mom's brother, as this one: 'This tenant was diabetic. Health care is often unaffordable, and in her case, not available. Her insulin was scarce and she had meager means to obtain this necessary medication. After missing their house guest for about a day or so, the husband and wife made the decision to open her door and check on her. To their horror, the woman lay dead on her sofa bed. When we arrived, details became clear that this poor young lady slipped into a coma and passed away.' - the horrible part about my uncle was that the immediate family was not around, and he was diabetic too, and the worst part was that they found him 30 days later, even neighbors didn't pay attention. Death is unpredictable, therefore, hardly ever I look into future, just live day by day. But sometimes I still wish to hit that 100 mark, lol. Thanks for sharing this interesting stories, Anna :)

joderebe said...

Hi Mike
I'll definitely keep in mind that beer offer. Naturally I'm assuming your buying! Take care!

Bob Johnson said...

Powerful story Mike, way to stand up for what you believe is right, how do you deal with seeing dead people? do they have counselling available, how often? it's gotta affect a person in a major way.

Lisa McGlaun said...

Mike,

This retelling of events is interesting on so many levels. - Our handling of death - Our isolation in a community of millions - Our loss of rituals in a hurried society - And the sheer overwhelming emotion of dealing with mortality. Crap, you laid alot on me to think about..:)

I wonder how I would react in the situation you describe and in the many that you faced all the time in that job. I hope I'd step up as you did.

Best Wishes,
Lisa

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Anna,
I am sorry to hear about your uncle and the folks you've lost in your life. Thanks for sharing here, and here's to you reaching the 100 mark! -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Anna,
I am sorry to hear about your uncle and the folks you've lost in your life. Thanks for sharing here, and here's to you reaching the 100 mark! -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Lisa,

"This retelling of events is interesting on so many levels. - Our handling of death - Our isolation in a community of millions - Our loss of rituals in a hurried society - And the sheer overwhelming emotion of dealing with mortality.

You raised some interesting points here in your comments. I think the one which stands out here the most in for this post is the isolation in a community of millions. This woman had no family, and only friends to care for her remains. It was sad. Thanks for reading, Lisa. -Mike

Anna said...

Hey Mike, no problem, life goes on! Thanks again, Anna :)

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Bob,
"how do you deal with seeing dead people? do they have counselling available...?

Yes there is counselling available, and too many cops are too "manly" to ask for it and turn to alcohol. In reality, when dealing with a situation like that you have too much to do to think about the harshness of the death until much later. I didn't have problems with this stuff until after I left the police dpartment. Thanks for commenting, Bob. It is always good to have you here. -Mike.

Bob Johnson said...

Thanks Mike, it's too bad they don't.

Maureen said...

I don't know how you could do that... you are a very special person, indeed.

I know would never have the intestinal fortitude to witness such horrors without going crazy.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Maureen,

"I know would never have the intestinal fortitude to witness such horrors without going crazy."

Some people do go crazy and find solitude in viuces such as alocohol. There are numerous suicieds in poice work. The stress, oftentimes, is unbearable. Thanks for your comment and for reading this post. -Mike.