Essay

“Mister, what does death smell like?”

During my career, I’ve undertaken many roles. Some I have loved and some I have despised. Queuing up and waiting to take a brick during the July riot season as it’s become known among the most annoying.

Most officers like to try a little of everything and see where they fit in with regards to the many roles that you can find yourself doing. Dealing with serious crimes, traffic offences, being a general response officer or training to be a Youth Diversion Officer specialising in dealing with young offenders and Restorative Justice programs. People often like to swap out every now and then to get a taste of everything as they prepare to take rank or become Detectives.

During many of these roles, you often come into contact with children by visiting schools or youth groups and community centres as part of Neighbour (now Local) Policing Teams. I loved doing this work when I was recovering from injury as it was easy to do and I’m a big child at heart. We’d often go to the schools with lots of police equipment, let them wear hats and jackets and answer lots of questions.

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In Northern Ireland, I feel it’s especially important to have this relationship with children. It is crucial that they not be scared of police but that they learn to trust us in times of need. This is important everyone but especially so in Northern Ireland; nowhere else is such a negative view projected onto children either deliberately or by their environment at such an early age by those who rightly or wrongly feel hurt or injustice by the actions of the RUC/PSNI.

By the way, please don’t threaten your kids with the cops when they are being naughty, it’s problematic and associates us with bad things but that’s a whole other story.

Children have a beautiful curiosity about them that I envy and miss. Again I am a big child at heart and I love childish and dumb humour. They get to talk without a filter, feel no embarrassment and care of nobody’s opinion of them and we simply make excuses for them. But… sometimes they ask questions that we have no answers for. Sometimes they ask really inappropriate questions, such as, “Have you seen a dead body?” or “What does death smell like?”

When this question pops up I find that the teachers are often very quickly at my side and running to rescue everybody from this horribly awkward situation. I’m no stranger to the question and always try to meet them with a somewhat simple answer… “It smells like a big smelly poo!” Childish humour works well for… well… children. With a sigh of relief, everybody is relaxed again and we move quickly on to something else, this is usually when the hat wearing starts.


The real answer though is something different. Something considerably more upsetting. It’s often very difficult to explain to the layperson never mind to a young child, curious about something they barely comprehend.

During the “Dry Your Eyes” situation a couple of weeks ago when PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton told a serving police officer to “dry your eyes” during a discussion about mental health and increasing police responsibility where we simply shouldn’t be responsible. This caused many officers to anonymously step up to the podium and yell out a therapeutic fuck you through the Belfast Telegraph, BBC Radio Ulster and other pulpits.

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One officer specifically stated that he is frequently reminded of death, a traumatic moment in his life; resuscitating an elderly gentlemen, who had suffered a cardiac event. This resulted in the deceased aspirating his lunch into the Officer’s mouth; chicken soup. The Officer now can’t smell chicken or be near chicken soup as it puts him right back into the moment in time. I suppose he might say death smells like chicken soup.

Death is different for everybody.

Officers responding to a violent scene either intentional (murder) or by accident (RTC) they are often met by the grotesque and malingering sweet coppery smell of warm blood. A smell that tells you someone’s life force is escaping their body.

It’s not a smell we’re supposed to smell.

Death, for me, is psychological. I know a lot of folks will call it the smell of wet rubbish bins, decaying hair in a shower drain and all these anecdotal adjectives. For me, the smell of death is a verb. It’s a physical force on my body; it’s, a hand on my shoulder pushing me back away from the danger.

When you walk into a property where somebody has died a few days prior the smell hits you like a smack in the mouth. There’s a lurch in your stomach, your skin crawls along your spine and your neck tightens. You step back a little bit, almost instinctively, because your body is telling you… screaming desperately for you to move away from the scene; something terrible has happened and you need to leave immediately.

Almost like it’s realising that a dead one of ‘me’ is nearby and perhaps the danger still lingers. But we don’t. We ignore our body’s most primal instinct to protect us from serious harm and we carry on because it’s our sworn duty. It’s our job. We don’t self-pity. We don’t call up a Federation representative for a natter about what my rights are. We just get on with it because that’s what we do. Day in, day out.

Some deaths are worse than others; it depends on there where and when… sometimes even the who and how. I hate dealing with dead children. Children with bodies that have become stiff with rigor mortis and their skin blotching with livor mortis. I don’t have children myself but many officers I know do and I feel so sad for them.

How they deal with this type of call while maintaining professional composure. Looking upon children no older than their own and wishing they could hug them better. The parents, the close relatives and the family-friends who descend upon the home wailing and screaming in grief. The sounds stay with you for days afterwards. Having to tell someone their child is dead… it’s difficult.

I’ve seen a lot of death in many circumstances. I’ve seen brain matter on the other side of the street from where the individual’s body lays after being executed. I’ve seen body parts 200 meters away from a car that has crashed and contains the rest. I’ve seen a young woman driver with her spine snapped as a result of the collapse of the roof of her car forcing her down and into the passenger footwell… her intestines spilling out and dangling like sausages. She was 23. She was texting.

The one that bothered me the most was when I went to a person (injured party [IP]) reported as concern for welfare. The IP’s milk bottles began to gather and the Belfast Telegraph’s were visibly stacking up in a pile through the glass bottom door. Neighbours became concerned when they noticed the Milkman fighting for space on the door and some inquiries were made.

It had transpired the IP was supposed to have gone on holiday and all of these things were to have been cancelled. A quick inspection showed that an open but packed suitcase lay in the centre of the living room floor with a Passport right in the middle.

A 999 call was placed and it was immediately responded to. Police forced entry to the property and along with my colleague he and I were immediately stung with the smell… that smell. My spine started to tingle, my hair creeping up on my head. I could clearly see from the hallway that there was liquid everywhere, seeping through the floorboards from upstairs. Eviscerate fluid and soap which had congealed into a milky red mixture of scum dripping along the stairs and off of the upstairs landing.

My colleague and I went up the staircase and it was obvious there was significant water displacement with bits and pieces in it all over the place, the cheap wooden floor had peeled and warped. Blood had watered down and dried in and pieces of muscle tissue lay decaying on the landing. Immediately behind the door opposite this catastrophic scene was the bathroom and there, tragically, in the bath and full of what used to be water, the IP had apparently passed away suddenly in the bath before they were meant to go on holiday.

When a body dies it bloats and pops and putrefies within a day or two. Bodies that aren’t handled by funeral directors can become skeletal within weeks due to not having certain chemicals pumped into them. I’m not really familiar with the embalming process so just take my word on that one. In my situation, the IP had died in a confined space full of water. The tissue began soaking the water up and it had nowhere to expel it, pressure also starts to build up as the body decays and so the skin began to explode and split open sending bones, muscle tissue, blood, everything you can think of spilling into the water, creating a gross sludge soup.

I can still remember the random stains and splashes of decayed flesh that had exploded with such ferocity they struck the walls in the tiny 7 by 6 room. When the specialist’s arrived to remove the ‘corpse’ they used something not dissimilar to what’s used to empty a portaloo.

A big vacuum sucking wetly and slurping up the remains into bright yellow contaminant bags. Sloshing about wetly like someone had poured warm stew into a plastic bag, weighed down and swinging with gravity. I’d no idea what the fuck the family was going to have a funeral with as the smell was so strong I was afraid it was seeping through the bags.

Sometimes when I see someone swinging a carrier bag back and forth it brings me back to this moment. But nothing does that better  more so than Aquafresh toothpaste. The IP had a blue towel on the edge of the bath which had been pulled in by the decaying flesh attaching itself to the fabric, pulling it down into its digestive soup of bodily fluids leaving a streak of red blood, white decaying fat and blue fabric.

A little like Aquafresh.

aquafresh-toothpaste

So for me… the smell of death is Aquafresh. But I can’t tell the kids that story.

Don

 

 

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