I grew up next to a funeral home in Easton, Maryland. At least once a week a white truck lumbered down the alley, pulled into our neighbor’s rear parking area, and left with mysterious boxes labeled BIOHAZARD and INFECTIOUS WASTE. Because I was a kid, I usually watched these proceedings from a tree limb or a swing or a bicycle seat, and I didn’t think too much about the cargo’s hazardous contents. But I was vaguely aware that the boxes issued directly from the garage that doubled as a mortuary, the place where the hearse delivered all the bodies. And I assumed that strange things happened in there that probably had to do with bloodletting. Eventually every dead body that arrived at my neighbor’s house was disassembled into the tidy corpse that would be displayed at the front of the home and the remains that would be shuttled out the back.
This Atlantic article by Saira Khan, “Smelling Death: On the Job with New York’s Crime-Scene Cleaners,” was so grim and unnerving that it brought back my whole childhood. (Kidding, Mom. Sort of.) For me, a red plastic bag full of carnage is like Proust’s petite madeleine. So I’m reading along, just savoring my heartwarming memories of the morgue next door disgorging body parts to men in hazmat suits, when I hit this passage:
Anything that gives personality to the dead affects crime-scene cleaners—things like a neatly folded jacket hanging over a chair, a Victoria’s Secret bag from a recent shopping trip, a pot of macaroni and cheese with the wooden spoon still in it. “It’s like someone literally hit the pause button on someone’s life,” says Baruchin. “It’s actually one of the most serene things you could see, a preserved moment in someone’s life, but when you think about the death part of it, it can get upsetting.”
Renner adds, “It can be very surreal, or freaky, kind of like a snapshot because you can actually picture what the person was doing right before they were killed or died.” Both men say they prefer to know as little as possible about the victims.
I guess I never thought about a crime scene as capturing a moment. Detectives do this with a specific objective in mind: they’re trying to decipher the etiology of a homicide. But when the body is gone and there’s only the immediate aftermath to contend with—those frozen objects all around—it’s tempting to imagine what the dead were doing, seeing, and generally experiencing at the moment their lives were cut short. Like right now I’m sitting at my desk with an empty bowl of watermelon (at least her last meal was one of her favorite foods), an empty glass of water (a shame that she was thirsty though), a to-do list with many open items (this delay on buying a bicycle helmet proves that she was courting death), and photos of my loved ones (man, she’s gonna miss them). Unfortunately one of the prostitutes living in the illegal strip club/brothel across the street has pointed a rifle through my window and shot me through the ears. Does this moment of dying represent me? Do these scattered, splattered objects on my desk tell a story? Can they communicate a life to a cleaning crew? If I just step away for a moment, can I ever come back?
Maybe we should treat all moments in time and objects in space with the delicacy and absorbing interest we’d grant those that belonged to the dead. I can hold up my sticky fork that once pierced a watermelon. What if this is my last fork? What do its little tines tell me about the life that I’ve lived? I can smile back at my nephew as he grins up at me from a photograph. Where did you come from, you little goof? And where are you going? I can contemplate the tree through my window before the prostitute’s bullet tears through its leaves. It would be nice to be a kid perched in that tree, heedless of the worlds that are drained from people when they die. These surroundings may not form a crime scene (yet—for now I’m still in the whore’s good graces), but they are worthy of attention. And it’s indeed criminal that one day they will all disappear.
I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and so effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognized their voice the spell is broken. We have delivered them: they have overcome death and return to share our life. (Proust, Remembrance of Things Past)