The scent of death
Please note: this is an fairly untarnished reflection on death. It may be disturbing for some people.
After walking through the door, a gurney – with a tightly wrapped, crisp white shroud – blocks my way into the room. I have to shuffle around it.
I am gestured into the main room, and told to put on some scrubs. I hesitate. I remember what the technican asked me before, about vaccinations. I don’t actually have any. They assumed I’m a frontline worker. There is a pause when I explain who I am.
“You’re a what? OK, then go that way…”
I’m told to go to the viewing room: It’s where police officers and family usually gather. They can’t remember the last time anyone else was in there who wasn’t on official business.
It is a narrow corridor, with a large, plate glass window facing into the main room. It has low railings running along the window. It’s an uninterrupted view to something very few people see.
On their side of the glass, it’s a formality. A quite antiquated procedure. A rite-of-passage perhaps. From where I stand: it’s a demonstration. Or a clarification. Maybe part of a bereavement process for some. I had been there a month before, when I quickly took a quick tour, to arrange this longer visit. It was still and silent then.
But now it’s different. The radio is playing top 40 hits. There are two technicians wearing scrubs, boots, gloves, face plates and plastic sheets loosely around them. And there are two pale, greying, naked, dead bodies lying on porcelain slabs.
They are just lying there. I stop mid-step when I see them. There is absolutely nothing hiding them from me. The clean glass means nothing. The sight penetrates me.
I have never seen a dead body before. Now I am suddenly looking at two.
And yet the nonchalant, untarnished presence of two dead bodies is shunted aside by the immediate and penetrating smell.
It smells… well, like death. Death as a disease. Death as old flesh and stagnant body fluid. Death as something moist, sweet, sour, repulsive but subtle. Not alarming like burnt hair or corrosive chemical. But putrified. Still. Lingering. It is the smell of the slow, breaking-down of everything: a release of cohesive life into component parts. Acid, minerals, water, bacteria…
This smell stops me from taking anything less than shallow breaths, occasionally breathing into my shirt for what I hope is a clean inhale. It feels like a full lungful of death would be overpowering, nauseating. It is an instinctual aversion to that which is rotting, that which is to be avoided.
These aren’t just two dead bodies, lying in state, elegant in their frozen nobility. They are undergoing a post-mortem examination. The two bodies have their chests cleaved wide open, skin pulled back like leathery curtains, revealing their organs and muscle. Marbled bright white, red and yellow against the pallid, greying skin.
The technicians are busy snipping away at the intestines, unpicking them from other organs and tissue. One of them holds what looks like a large, dark brown-grey, thick, bulbous snake. The large intestine. It flops under its internal weight and flaccid density. It is huge, endless. I figure these bloated-looking intestines are responsible for part of the smell. The intestines are slowly drawn into a red plastic bucket sat between the still, lifeless legs. Each section of the gut is carefully snipped and unhooked.
On the next table, the other body has a chest bright orange with fatty tissue. What was once held in a lifetime of darkness, is now in the light. Flesh and organs shimmering, free to wriggle and shiver as the technician moves organs aside to isolate pieces to remove. The two open bodies are not uniform: they look as different as their exteriors.
At one point, one of the technicians pauses to grab a stainless steel spatula, scooping out liquid from the large empty space where the intestines had once been.
Elbow-deep, they rummage around organs to find the right spots to cut. They unpick parts by hand, pulling fat away from tissue. The smell is really intense. Unlike rotting food in the fridge that has gone wet and putrid, punching with a singular smell of decay, this smell is multi-dimensional. A complex bouquet of organic states. The worst of the smell seems to be emerging from what is in my eyes, an unhealthy body. From the bloated organs and fatty tissue, it’s almost like it was beginning to fall apart before it died.
The coroner enters to check on the technicians. He comes over to inspect the technicans work. With the intestines removed, they moves through the body.
“That’s the stomach?” One technician asks.
“6 years of medical school…yes, that’s the stomach.” He replies sarcastically.
He walks around the body and notices the bladder.
“Let’s syringe out the urine now.”
At that request, the body begins to feel quite inhuman. Looking at it, it is a mix of butcher table, grotesque body horror, organised with hazy recollection of basic medical anatomy.
Urine being removed from a body strikes me as a surreal, awkward moment. This is not a clinical treatment, a syringe of medicine. It is an act of pure utility: a syringe to access fluids. Jabbing a syringe into what looks like an inflated sac, he draws out pale yellow urine for testing.
Beyond this instruction, the coroner has appeared to do only one job: remove the rib cage.
He picks up a giant pair of bright, stainless steel scissors. It has short curved blades like miniature garden shears. With 30 years of experience, he quickly snips each rib. He walks around the body. Practiced, confident, everyday.
They crack like wet branches: crunchy, moist. The one that draws a hesitation from me, that feels the most uncomfortable, is a drawn out crack as he snaps through the top of the ribcage, above the sternum. With a serious bit of force, he pulls the skeletal chest up, towards the chin, to pull off the ribs. The left arm involuntarily moves in reaction to the force as he wrestles the ribs off the body. It emerges free like a shield, disconnected.
It’s a strange sensation to watch ribs — discovered amongst the fat and muscle — be cut and removed painlessly. It is an act of pure violence. But there is no scream, no protest.
What happens next is both gut-wrenching but fascinating.
With the ribs removed, the technicians attempt to remove the lungs and heart that now lie exposed. One of them struggles getting them free. The coroner steps in.
“Let me deal with the tongue”.
I briefly wonder what the tongue has to do with the lungs and heart.
He does something brutal but revelatory. Craning the silent head back, he slices into the base of the throat, simply thrusts his hand through the open neck and rifles away until he gets purchase on something.
He seems to be holding onto something inside the head.
He turns to the technician: “You have to pull hard in one motion: don’t stop”.
With that, he pulls. Slowly the entire throat and windpipe appears out of the neck. He pulls the lungs down into the centre of the body, free from its original placement.
The lungs are a single, bloody, deep red sac of unfamiliar tissue. The whole thing looks alien. Apart from the soft, textured wiggling end, that I realise is a tongue.
Now removed from its home in the mouth, it is now an appendix to a larger body part. It looks grotesque. The resulting gag-reflex is made worse when I consider the source of my own gag. I am suddenly aware of my own body, in a way I’ve never been able to consider. My body suddenly feels in motion: full of pulse and life, but see myself in this still fleshy mannequin that has been cleanly torn apart. I am aware of my own tongue in my body, my own breath in my lungs, drawn in and out.
The lungs are bright ruby and purple, textured and shimmering with wine-red blood. There is now a deep puddle of blood sloshing inside the chest, as organs are removed. The organs all glistening pink, pale yellow and deep red. Once they are taken out of the body, into buckets or placed at the legs, there remains nothing inside the chest. The shorn, white tips of broken ribs jut out at a right angle, the head angled back, arms by the side, drooped below.
The spine is all that is left inside the chest, running from top to bottom. Knobbly, slightly meandering like a tree branch, encased in red skin. The man is now a carcass.
The organs are all placed along the far wall, next to me. Everything sparkles on the steel tables. I know they will investigate and weigh every major organ, separating them from each other. It takes a moment to try and arrange the organs in a way that makes sense. But for me, it is hard to tell what is what.
One technician takes the lungs from one body, and begins to slice the tongue like a steak, examining it. He makes incisions down the length, looking for any tell-tale signs of disease. Separating the heart from the lungs takes a moment, to find the right way around some connective tissue. Once removed from its own sac, blood from the heart oozes out. It is viscous, almost black-red liquid.
With similar incisions, the other technician discovers calcified residue inside the heart. A lifetime of living exposed as yellowy, chalk-white crust.
Every organ is sliced methodically. Blood clots like black jelly sit on the table. When organs are moved and replaced, they gurgle, move and slide across each other. Fat connects everything, stretchy and lumpy. There is blood everywhere.
The heart — when flat on the table— can at times take on a very clear and symbolic heart-shape. Puckered with fatty yellow casing, it holds a recognisable form better than other flabby, shapeless organs. I can see why the Egyptians revered it.
Kidneys emerge from thick casings of tissue and fat, like a bean from its shell. They’re bigger than I thought. But nothing compared to the liver. The livers that sit on the table are huge. Not just large, they are solid, dense. The blood around the liver and gall bladder is like tomato sauce: thin, red-orange. The gall bladder appears on the side of the liver, like a small thin sac. One technician pushes it, and a small hole oozes bile.
“Oh look!” he says to me, squeezing the bladder like a organic button.
The amount of fatty skin – stretching flaps and bits of flesh that are not part of an organ – is surprising. The technicians have trouble grabbing onto these sections of tissue to separate the larger, more robust organs.
There is one broadly curved-shape sack that appears thinner than others. Thick veins lie across it. It looks incredibly fragile. The stomach.
The technician takes a scalpel, and makes a small incision, holding the top of the stomach. The contents collect at the bottom. I suddenly remember: this stomach belonged to someone. This sac was the thing that would fill with morning breakfasts and late night dinners. I realise he may have eaten before he died. His last meal…
With some scissors the technician draws through the thin membrane, and chunky, deep green-black sludge spills out. Watery and lumpy, the digested food empties onto the table.
“Does food always look like that?” I ask.
He looks up at me, “Usually. It may be more green sometimes”.
The sour, sweet, sweaty unpleasant smell intensifies. The presence of bile, digested stomach contents and putrid organs makes for an overpowering sensation. I experience a strange dissociative feeling as the technician continues to root around someone’s last meal. I take a step back.
The technicians had until 11 to complete their work. It is now 11:30. I take a moment to acknowledge what I’ve just witnessed, but now the smell is making me gag. They will continue to weigh the organs, place them in a bag, and place them back into the chest. Then they will sew the bodies together again. Though the body is dissected, you cannot lose the idea this was a person. Every organ is cradled, but viewed and dissected clinically. There is no emotion, but no disrespect either.
The brain has not been touched. I’m thankful they haven’t gotten to the brain.
I thank the technicians for letting me observe, add my thanks to the coroner, and make a calm but quick exit.
I walk out into the street and the life-affirming sun. The scent of death is replaced with cigarette smoke from a passerby, the faint sweet taste of baked bread from a Tesco a few doors down, and a gentle breeze in the air.