Two of the blogs I regularly visit have written of suicide this week.
The first body I ever saw was of my Grandfather Bill Smith [not a common name, just popular, was a line he used]. He had a series of heart attacks over the last few years of his life, but sadly in the last couple of years, was badly affected by Alzheimers and struggled to remember who any of us were. My mother decided at the funeral that she wished to view his body and not wanting to let her do that alone I went with her. The person I saw lying in the coffin was not my Grandfather as I remembered him nor was it the person I wished to remember. I have never viewed a body of a loved one since because I want the memory of someone vibrant and alive, not of the husk.
As a policeman, one of the things we had to do in training was to visit the Morgue and view an autopsy. Let me tell you that the sanitary plasticness of CSI and other shows of that ilk, do not mirror the reality of having to watch that first cadaver carving. There is no dignity in death and the lack of personal respect that I saw in that situation was I suppose a way that the coroners could learn to cope with the job at hand. When you start thinking that short hours before, the object had been living and breathing I can imagine that it would be very difficult to maintain professionalism.
There are two other things I remember vividly from that first visit to the Morgue. The first is the stench of death which even covered by the cloying smell of disinfectant, hung heavy in the air and seemed to wish to reach out and grasp us and insidiously drench itself into our clothes.
The second was the freezer stacked high with unidentified naked bodies, sad in their sameness with a toe tag the only thing that individualized them.
One of my colleagues walked out of the Academy on our return that evening never to return.
I do count myself as lucky during my police career not to have had to deal with the aftermath of death as often as many of my colleagues. I remember one horror stretch that my brother-in-law [also a policeman had] where he, as a young father himself, had to investigate three cot deaths in a week, and also a couple of fatal car accidents. The roles I had within the police force did cloister me from those things somewhat.
However, my first night on the job, when I was out on patrol with a Sergeant on afternoon shift we got a call to attend a house where someone had died. I will never forget the image of an elderly man in his 80’s sitting rocking in his chair saying over and over that “She was such a young woman, how can such a thing happen.” He was speaking of his wife, who also, in her 80’s, we found dead on the floor beside their bed. They were Russian émigrés and had no family that we could identify and so the old man truly did face life alone.
I have seen other bodies some freshly dead, some nothing more than bones. I will never forget the smell of death, nor the sight of my grandfather in his coffin, nor the words of that old man whose path I crossed one night in April 1982. In those experiences lies a simple truth for me. Whatever it is that makes us human, with all of our vibrancy and capacity for emotion and love, leaves the house of our body when we die. I don’t really mind if you call it spirit or soul, but it does not continue as part of a physical existence beyond that moment of death. I don’t yet have an answer to where it goes.