The sight and scent of death
What I saw cannot be unseen but I needed to see it
Trigger warning: This is a graphic depiction of dead bodies being examined in a mortuary.
After passing through the double doors, a gurney – with a tightly wrapped, crisp white shroud atop it – blocks my way into the reception area. I have to shuffle around it, and the body underneath.
I am wordlessly gestured into a side room, and told to put on some scrubs. I hesitate. I remember what the technican asked me before, something about vaccinations.
I don’t actually have any relevant ones. 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 anyway…”
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 of something very few people see.
On their side of the glass, what I'n about to see is a formality. A quite antiquated procedure. A rite-of-passage even.
However, on my side of the glass, it’s a demonstration. Or a clarification. Maybe part of a bereavement process for some.
I had been standing in this viewing space before a month earlier, when I quickly took a quick tour to arrange this longer visit. Back then, it was still and silent.
But now it’s different: the radio is playing top 40 hits. Bouncing and echoing off the tiled walls. There are two young 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. When I enter in this platform 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.
Despite this visual shock, with its nonchalant, untarnished presence of two dead bodies, it 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. It's 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. Every so often breathing into my shirt to gain some sort of less obnoxious 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.
But these aren’t just two dead bodies, lying in state, elegant in their frozen nobility, ready for a ceremonial burial or religious procession. They are undergoing a clinical, post-mortem examination. They both 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. If the shock of two dead bodies wasn't enough, seeing them in the process of a somewhat grotesque disembowelment with a feeling of everyday pruning that adds an additional, disquieting dimension to the experience.
The technicians are busy snipping away at the bowels, unpicking them from other organs and tissue. One of them takes from one body what looks like a large, dark brown-grey, thick, bulbous snake: the large intestine. It flops under its own internal weight and flaccid density. It is huge, it feels 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 slab, the other corpse has a chest rendered bright orange with fatty tissue. These colours are astonishing: 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.
It is startling: 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 untrained eyes - an unhealthy body. From the bloated organs and fatty tissue, it’s almost like it was beginning to fall apart before it expired.
At this point, the coroner enters to check on the technicians. He comes over to inspect their work. With the intestines removed, they move through the body.
“That’s the stomach?” One technician asks.
The coroner replies sarcastically, “6 years of medical school…yes, that’s the stomach.”
He walks around the body and notices the bladder: “Let’s syringe out the urine now.”
At that request, to me the body begins to feel quite inhuman. Taking it in, this scene is a mix of butcher table aesthetic, grotesque body horror, all organised around a 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 extraction, 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. He walks around the body. Practiced, confident, everyday. With 30 years of experience, he quickly snips each rib. 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 this 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 useless shield, disconnected, free.
It’s a strange sensation to watch ribs — discovered amongst the fat and muscle — be cut and removed painlessly. It feels like an act of pure violence. But there is no scream, no protest.
I feel like protesting after what happens next.
With the ribs removed and the whole chest cavity open, 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, 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, and 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 flops about unsure, which I then realise is the 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 location of my own gag. I am suddenly aware of my own body, in a way I’ve never been able to consider.
I become aware of my body suddenly feeling in motion: full of pulse and life, vibrating, breathing, creaking but in a million pieces of motion. But now I can 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.
This person's 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 more 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, closest 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 still quite 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. Fat? Cholesterol? Whatever it is, its a lifetime of eating and living exposed as yellowy, chalk-white crust.
Every organ is sliced methodically. Blood begins to clot 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 an organic button. Its the first time they've acknowledged my presence.
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, delicate. It's the stomach.
The technician takes a scalpel, and makes a small incision, holding the top of the stomach. The contents collect at the bottom.
Then I suddenly remember again: this stomach belonged to someone. It has their food in it. I realise he may have eaten before he died. I'm looking at his last meal… Did he enjoy it? Because they told me their cause of death, I know he didn't know it was going to be 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. They're late and I can feel my own limits approaching for this unique but disturbing observation.
I take a moment to acknowledge what I’ve just witnessed, but now the smell is making me gag.
I know 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. Thankfully, the brain has not been touched. I’m grateful they haven’t gotten to the brain. Every organ is cradled, but viewed and dissected clinically. There is no emotion, but no disrespect either. Though the body is dissected, you cannot lose the idea this was a person.
I thank the technicians for letting me observe, add my thanks to the coroner, and make a calm but quick exit, out of the mortuary, back onto the street.
I walk out into 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.
This account was originally written in 2017.
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