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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