Monday, August 20, 2012

Just Plain Dead

            Do you have a career where looking at bodies gets to be like wearing an old hat?
            I have seen them all, I hope.  They come in all the shapes and sizes you could possibly see by walking the mall.  Not the beach, the mall.  You would need a mall, a big one, to get that much variety.  The majority of the bodies at the beach are beach-ready; in the mall, they are mall-ready.
            I add a variant to this wonderful thought.  Bodies come in various states of freshness.  A common question a coroner will ask is, “When was the last time you saw or spoke to the decedent?”  They like a bracket of possible time of death.  I do not know all about why they want to know.  I just hear the question being asked a lot.  For the sake of my nose, I do know that sooner is better.

I do not like decomps.  That is short for decomposing body.  That gets gross fast.  In three days, a body can become unrecognizable.  You may have heard the smell is unlike anything else. Not true.  The smell is like everything amped to the highest degree.  The trauma created by seeing your first few decomps is something that stays with you.  So does the smell.
I have a keen sense of taste and smell.  I can tell the difference between many types of coffee.  With my wonderful ability and acumen regarding potpourri, let me tell you what decomp is like.  
I would describe the smell as being very musky, moldy, and heavy on the ammonia.  It is a bit like any dead thing you have come across, plus that sour smell some fast food pickles give off.  I can testify in open court that the memory of decomp is commonly triggered by going past most fast food places.  I know that some people out there are really interested in the total variants of decomp smell.  I hope I never meet one.
Interesting note:  Smell is the most common hallucination.  In my case, these hallucinations are just disturbances like those experienced during a nightmare.  I accept them.  They do not bother me.  In fact, they have actually helped me lose some weight.  I will now avoid any possibility of a lawsuit by not revealing which restaurants trigger the flashbacks.
            Can you say, “Together?”  Not all bodies are found in such a state.  Folded, stretched, twisted, flattened, and many combinations of torn and scattered have become practically normal to me.  
I was doing overalls at a train versus car situation.  “Overalls” are photos of the whole scene at various angles and POV’s (Points of View) that are the hallmark of good crime scene photography.  The detective on scene asked me to photograph the body.  
“Sure,” I said and asked where it was.  He told me it was still in the front half of the car, which was further down the tracks than the last half.  I walked the several hundred yards back to the intersection where the victim’s car got stuck on the tracks.  She could have panicked; I do not really know what happened.
I found the front half of the vehicle, began to do overalls, and then poked the camera into the open parts of the interior.  There was no one in the car as far as I could tell, so I went back to the detective to inquire about it.  He informed me the victim was in the front seat.  I asked where that was.  We went back to the vehicle together.
The victim and the front seat were under the dashboard.  I did not realize a body was in there until the fire department pulled the car apart with the Jaws of Life and extracted the remains.  Despite the contortion and cramped space, she laid out pretty nicely.  The body looked better than most involved in a train versus whatever else.  As if there is ever a contest.
            Just plain dead is not something I come across very often.  Normally, I photograph bodies related to murders, traffic, and industrial accidents.  Recently, I lamented to the coroner that an elderly man, who had passed some hours previously or perhaps a day before we arrived, had died alone.  I was told that his family described him as a problem that wanted to be left alone.
I judged a book by its cover.  My empathy told the story before I had any facts.  I find I am not alone in this regard.  Taking care of yourself and being kind to others without expecting anything in return seems like such a trite bit of advice.  There is a vast majority of people, however, who do that very thing.  I have seen the stark difference so often.  

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