Islands in the City
We don’t often think about old people committing suicide. Or if we do, we think about people deliberately and gracefully opting out of extreme pain or slow decline. On a visit to a mortuary, I saw the body of a silver-haired woman in her seventies who’d jumped from her second floor flat. She’d carried a chair out onto the balcony first to help her climb onto the ledge. It was that detail – imagining her opening the french windows, carefully lugging a chair outside, positioning it beneath her window boxes, and achingly climbing up onto it – that helped me imagine her alive and made me properly sad. They’d cleaned her up in the mortuary, but her nose was still squashed against the right side of her face. From what we knew about her, she’d been lonely, entirely unvisited, without a single soul for company in a city of millions.
Preparing for Death
I was at the mortuary to get acclimatised to death. People die a lot, and as police officers are often the first to the corpse, it makes sense to learn about how bodies react to death and how you react to the dead. On the way to the station, I ate an apple and some oatcakes to line my stomach. Then we took a police van to the coroner’s, stopping off at a greasy spoon where I ordered a fried egg and mushroom roll to reline my stomach. I slathered it in salt and sauce, getting two HP stains on my white shirt as I manoeuvred the leaking bap from the plate to my jaw. As we ate, a colleague described another mortuary trip he’d been on. One of the people he’d seen was an elderly woman who’d died choking on a chunk of chicken. ‘Just think, you live your whole life and then you choke on a piece of chicken,’ he’d said to the mortuary assistant. ‘Something’s got to kill you,’ the man replied.
On arrival, we put on transparent, luminous green aprons and blue plastic over-shoes in a cold, white-tiled room. We listened to an introductory talk on what to do if we felt faint or needed to throw up, and then we were given a run-through of the day’s haul of cadavers. The only time I felt faint all morning was hearing that litany of tragic local deaths and knowing that they were all stacked up behind the grid of fridge doors next to us.
Sudden, Violent, and Unexpected
I saw a great deal that morning, which I may recount elsewhere at some point, but what struck me most were the tales of lonely people dying alone and, sometimes, unnoticed. After we’d watched the ninety minute post-mortem of a young drug addict who’d deliberately overdosed (evidence bags full of suicide notes lying on the metal counter, his daughter’s name tattooed on his chest), a mortuary assistant pulled bodies out of the refrigerators and told us the story of how they’d died. A coroner only orders a post-mortem for somebody if the cause of death is unknown, or if they’ve died suddenly, violently or unexpectedly. This means that there’s a level of drama, brutality and uncertainty to all mortuary bodies.
I had Seo Jorge’s rendition of Bowie’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide going through my head as we looked at the twisted body of a seventeen year old foreign student, fresh in from the night before and not due for post-mortem till the next day. She looked so young and pristeen, apart from the slash marks on her thighs, chest and wrists. Her face was scrunched up with pain, her hair tangled and matted around it. They were still struggling to contact her family when we saw her.
Next we saw two bodies that were being stored in freezer compartments. The first was a woman in her sixties who’d died alone in her flat. She hadn’t been discovered for several weeks and in the intervening period she’d been eaten away by her starving dog. There were a few rogue maggots around the body bag as the drawer opened. Inside was a tobacco coloured corpse, withered and gnawed, the face missing its lower jaw. Her body looked like it had been pulled out of a bog after hundreds of years, rather than found in a London flat just weeks previously. Likewise, we saw the body of an elderly man who’d died alone four months earlier and had only recently been discovered. A passer-by had smelt something and seen flies at the windows. When police attended, they pushed past four months of piled-up post to find a body that was totally shrivelled and black, like a forgotten fruit that’s rotted and dried.
Death has a smell. At one point in the morning, we were invited to go into a room where seven bodies had been prepared for the pathologist; their chests and heads open and hollow, their brains and entrails in tubs by their feet. It was a poignant, frightening scene, but it was the smell that made it hard to enter the room. I had to make four separate approaches before I could push past the threshold and walk among them. The smell is repellent, not just because it’s unpleasant but because, at some level, you feel like you oughtn’t to breathe it in. It’s suffused with horror, loss and danger and your every impulse strains against it.
‘That smell will stay with you for three days now; it lingers in the hair follicles in your nose,’ we were told before leaving. And it did. Answering emails, standing at a cashpoint, chopping salad, lying down to sleep: I was visited by that awful dark brown smell, uncertain whether I was just imagining it.
The mortuary visit felt important, and will definitely help me to be more calm and capable if I’m ever called to attend the scene of a sudden death. But the main thing it made me think about was loneliness; how many people in this mad city feel utterly adrift, and what a brutal toll it takes on a person to be, or to feel, that unloved.