As I sat there staring at the dead body on the floor in front of me, I began to think that maybe, just maybe, life and death weren’t really that important after all.
It was a bright blue, sunny, yet cold, Sunday afternoon when the pastor of the church I was attending approached me saying that she needed me to go to a woman’s house who had just lost her father and was very upset. I was a young, uneducated, untrained 24 year old, but I loved people and was always willing to help when needed.
As I drove to the woman’s house, gazing up occasionally at the clear, blue sky, I thought about how to best support someone who was grieving.
In my mind I pictured cups of tea and a lot of listening.
But, no amount of self talk on the way over was going to prepare me for what happened next.
When I arrived at the apartment building I found that the front door hadn’t been closed properly and I let myself in.
I walked up a few steps and about halfway down a bland hallway when I found the number I had been given.
I knocked on the door and as a woman opened it, the first thing that gripped me was the pungent smell of a place that had not been cleaned for several years.
The second thing I noticed was the clutter. This woman was a hoarder which was, clearly, why the place smelled like rotting food.
As my eyes quickly scanned the contents of the room, what I observed next would take my breath away and send my head into a spin.
There, in the middle of the living room floor, lay a body.
Lifeless. Cold. Face up. Dead.
Running around the body was a young girl, 8 years old, hair in pig-tails, playing with her dolls and occasionally jumping over Grandpa as if it was a normal day at home.
I spent the next 4 hours just sitting there, keeping a sort of vigil, over his dead body.
About an hour in I almost vomited as I watched a cockroach crawl up the left ear of the man, circle as if it was contemplating entering his lobe, eventually deciding to give-up, crawl straight over his cheeks, onto his nose and down the other side of his head.
I didn’t draw attention to it hoping that the man’s daughter hadn’t noticed. I felt embarrassed that it had happened and ashamed that I didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t want to highlight the fact that I was in shock, terrified and had no idea what the hell I was doing. I just wanted it to go away. Far, far away.
After I had been there for 2 hours, the Police arrived and suggested that the woman find a sheet with which to cover Grandpa. The woman, thankfully, obliged.
After the police left it would be another 2 hours before the coroner would come.
While I sat there I began to feel like it was all normal and there was nothing unusual about the situation. Maybe it was. After all, what, apart from birth, is more normal than death? It is one thing we all, eventually, experience.
The little girl continued to play, stopping occasionally for a snack or drink. The woman seemed to forget the body was there as she buzzed about, offering me tea and gossiping about a bunch of people in her building that I didn’t know.
‘So, this is what happens when you die’, I thought to myself. ‘Someone has to wait around for hours, police come, sheets are used, bugs climb around, people get bored and eventually your body is dragged off.’
There seemed to be very little dignity or honour for this man who was a father and a grandfather, who once had thoughts, dreams, hopes and fears.
Surely there was more to death than this?
This event that happened, almost 11 years ago to the day, has always been a struggle for me. There is something about the situation that continues to bother me and still picks away at my brain.
Maybe this is why when a woman was run-over by a dump truck right outside my window at work this week, I found myself unable to leave my office until her body had been removed.
I wanted to honour her. To honour life. And, maybe even more importantly, to honour death.
This woman was well-known in our area for being on the streets and I couldn’t help but think that there might be no one who really missed her.
I refused to let her be swept away and forgotten.
And so, like I did many years ago for that old man, I sat there keeping vigil over her dead body. I watched through my office window, staring at that orange tarp, as police and special investigators circled around her doing their work.
As the crime scene photographer took pictures from this angle then that, I thought about her, wondered about her life and mourned for her death.
I watched as the police and coroner walked around trying to figure out the best way to remove her body from beneath the truck.
There can be little dignity or honour in death.
But, shouldn’t it be the most dignified, honourable moment of life?
It is the final act, the last chapter.
Everything we have written across our lives up to that moment will come to a sort of, completion, whether it be glorious or tragic, when we breathe our last breath.
But, is that really where the story ends?
Many years ago that old man had changed my life forever as I sat with him staring my own inadequacies in the face. And this woman, who lay beneath the dump truck on Friday, has also changed me.
Part of their story continues with me.
He who has gone,
so we but cherish his memory,
abides with us, more potent, nay,
more present than the living man.
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry-