The Universe has an interesting sense of humor. Last Sunday, just days after I finished re-reading Deadhouse: Life in a Coroner’s Office and typing up a blog post for it (it’ll be up Friday), I found a dead body.
I took my cat Maudie Moo for a walk (our “walks” involved wandering around the yard together; Maudie likes it when her people are outside). At the end of our yard is a narrow alley and on the other side is the backyard of another house. It’s fenced in with a weird sort of chain link privacy fence that makes it difficult to see into the yard. I got down to the alley and walked down it a few feet, trying to lure my cat into the sun.
There I was, standing in the alley, singing along with Paul Simon on my iPod (“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”) when I realized there was someone laying in the neighbor’s yard. At first, I was a little embarrassed that I’d been singing along without realizing someone was there. Then I realized the person that was there probably wasn’t in any condition to hear me. He was laying on his back next to his lawn mower, one arm outstretch, his other arm curled up with his hand on his chest. A water bottle stuck out from his sweatshirt pocket. He looked like he was napping, but I knew he probably wasn’t.
I approached the fence and asked him if he was okay. No answer. I got closer and asked again. Still no answer. I got right up to the fence, peering between the weird privacy slats that blocked the view but didn’t. He wasn’t moving. It didn’t look like he was breathing. His skin had a waxy look to it.
I figured he was dead, but I ran to the house and got Dad for a second opinion. He confirmed it (Dad is uncanny with his ability to determine death without taking a pulse; 25 years as a cop helped develop that skill) and called it in. I then sat back and watched as first police officers, fire rescue, and paramedics, then the coroner, dealt with the body, my dad holding court with all of them just as he had when he was still working.
Meanwhile, I was left to explain to the neighbors (and friends of the neighbors who were on vacation, but heard the call on the police scanner) what had happened. Near as we can figure, he’d been out mowing that morning between 10 and noon. Dad saw the mower out, but didn’t see him, which he didn’t think much of at the time. I found the body sometime later, around 4:30. Dad said the mower was in a different position than when he last saw it, so he probably came back out, maybe started the mower again, maybe even mowed some, and then collapsed. He’d been laying there for at least four to six hours. Rigor was already starting to set in, so he wasn’t long for the world after he collapsed. There probably wasn’t anything that could have been done for him. Speculation is that it was most likely a heart attack, but he’d been taken to the hospital last week for his blood sugar, so maybe that was the deciding factor. I’m not sure.
Carrie felt bad that the man collapsed and died in his backyard and no one noticed for several hours, but really, I think it was a blessing. He was a quiet man, not exactly social, though very nice when he did speak. If he’d died in his house, it might have been days (or longer) before anyone found him. I think that would have been worse. And really, it was a nice day to die in the yard. A little chilly and breezy, but sunny. Not much in the way of flies, if you want to get scientific about it.
People kept asking me if I was okay since I was the one that found the body, which one hand I found odd, but on the other hand, I appreciated. It was nice of them to ask, but I couldn’t understand why they thought I’d be upset. I didn’t know the neighbor very well. And as my personal beliefs dictate, the soul or spirit of the man was long gone by the time I found his corpse. That’s all it was. A corpse. Out of the ordinary, sure, but not traumatic.
This isn’t to say I didn’t feel bad. I did. It’s a shame. But I guess I’m just one of those people that doesn’t fall apart at the sight of a dead body. I suppose, with reading all of those books about death and decomposition, it makes sense.
However, I’m not immune to those weird human thoughts when confronted with death on a back lawn. At the time I’d been sick for over a week and I was still dealing with a cough. While standing at the fence, waiting for the circus to arrive, I kept coughing and every time I did, I thought it would get the dead man’s attention. And then later, a slight case of embarrassment set in when I was recounting the story to someone because I’d realized that I’d asked a dead man if he was all right. Of course, I wasn’t certain he was dead at the time, but still I felt a little silly admitting to people that I’d tried to start a conversation with a corpse.
And honestly, I felt less awkward trying to talk to a dead man than I did trying to talk to the living neighbors.
That’s because death is more natural than my socialization skills.