I am not a cop. I am not a soldier. I am not a nurse or doctor. I've fought fires and worked with the fire department, but I am not a fire fighter. These jobs often involve dealing with dead people.
My job is to prevent death. But this week, I saw dead people. Two to be exact. And it takes its toll when I have time to download all that I have learned and saw.
Both were tragic and if there is any personal consulation, both deaths were due to natural causes and not due to some terrible industrial or mine accident. But when they occur on the property of my employer, it is my job to coordinate and conduct investigations, handle the notification of emergeny personnel and the many regulatory agencies involved in the aftermath of people dying on the job.
For the first time ever, my cell phone camera contains pictures of people who probably had very fulfilling lives and now are lifeless.
I hope very few of you have the opportunity to see a corpse. I'm not talking about a loved one in a casket, prepared and suited up for us to remember one last time what they sort of looked like in life. Most likely, if we live long enough, we will see more than a few.
I'm talking about the raw, exposed and terribly undignified body of a person who was one hour ago drinking a cup of hot coffee, making a funny remark or nodding to you as you spoke to them and are then suddenly dead.
It is shocking and invasive, as if you are seeing something so personal as to be embarrassed for the victim. It makes you realize, once again as if we needed reminding, that life is so brief and death comes very easily, often without much warning.
But it also reminds me at least that the body is just so much of a shell. I am reminded when I saw the body of my father after he died. I was not present when he slipped away in the early morning hours at the hospital, but gathered at the mortuary with the rest of my family to make plans for his services that afternoon.
The mortician, a friend of the family, announced that my father's body had just arrived. I asked to see him, a request that was not met with enthuisasm by our host. After insisting, I was taken to a back room where my father was just beginning to be washed.
The tears came not from horror or shock at the sight of his body which was oddly hued and with his head reared back in a wide mouthed expression as if gasping for another breath of sweet air. It was not the odd position of his hands and arms that I had so greatly admired for their sinewy and rough hewn strength. It was not for the smell of death that had already begun to emanate from him. It was none of those things.
It was because I knew that I did not have the chance to see my father again. What lay before me was merely a remnant of him, or better yet, a false version of him in life. Truly a shell and nothing more.
It was right then, right at that exact moment that I really began to miss him because he was really gone, really dead and really never coming back. The tears came immediately and hard.
(As I type this, I find myself stopping for a moment before writing the next lines.)
I miss him everyday and though the memory of his dead body returns to me now and again, that is not what makes me pause, take a deep breath and then continue. It is the memory of so many other things that makes me smile just a bit and makes my heart ache just a little. Those sweet memories are what give me pause.
And so it is when I consider the two bodies I had to encounter this week. I did not know these men but I do know that there are sons, daughters, wives and friends who will grieve and hopefully have sweet memories of them. What remains is nothing but empty flesh.
Do yourself a favor. Kiss someone you love. Smell their skin, stroke their arms and hold them for no particular reason. Listen to their voice and laughter. Watch how they walk or read a newspaper. Do all these things and record it deep in your memory.
These things are better than a photograph. I promise you, it will really matter someday.
Reprinted by request. Originally posted in "Modern Artifacts" November, 2006.