I was 18 the first time I ever saw a dead body. I was 18, completely niaive and pretty innocent. I was a police officer.
I’d seen photographs of dead bodies before. At training school the sergeant trainers left gruesome pics in their drawers in the classroom. I think it was some kind of initiation knowing that we’d do what every schoolboy does, we’d go through the teacher’s drawers when they were out of the room. It was here I got my first sight of road crash victms, people who had been shot, stabbed, blown off their own heads with shotguns. I recall one in particular of a guy who had jumped out of a plane and whose parachute hadn’t opened. He was wearing a blue jumpsuit, there was a little moat around his body which was half a foot into the grass, the moat was full of blood and other stuff. I don’t recall the photos being used in any of our lessons, so they must have been there just for us to discover.
My first dead body was a male. It was night shift. In those days the calls came in to each individual police station, we didn’t have control rooms, just a PC with a radio, a microphone and a pad of pre-printed forms on which the details of the job and who called it in were recorded. No computers, no despatch software. We were in the office when we got the call; train driver reporting hitting someone on the track.
I was a probationer, I never spent much time with a tutor, we didn’t in those days, he was there really just for advice and assistance with paperwork. I jumped in with him and we went to a section of the track about a mile from the railway station.
There were a few of us. We didn’t have Maglites in those days either, just yellow box torches which I think were called ‘Bardics’ . You could turn a knob and a red plastic cover would slide out over the bulb, turn it the other way and you turned the light green, there might have been an amber one too.
We searched the track. It was dark & eerie, I was nervous and yet excited. It didn’t take long. I can still remember the red lumberjack-type coat he was wearing. Apparently he’d laid down on the track and just waited for a train to hit him. I don’t know whether he bottled out at the last moment or if he was just lying in the wrong place because he wasn’t messy, he hadn’t been ripped in two as so often happens, his body hadn’t been churned under the wheels of many tons of steel turning him into disparate paste of pink mince; the train had taken the top of his head off. If you were at a certain angle you couldn’t even tell he’d been hit by a train.
When you got up close you could see exactly what had happened, you could see the skull smashed and ripped apart. So that’s what a brain looks like.
We did have plastic bags in those days. The sergeant thrust one into my hand “There you go son, see if you can find the rest of his head.” And off I went down the track picking up bits of scalp, fragments of skull and globules of brain.
In due course we loaded him into the ambo and followed it down to the mortuary. The attendant at the hospital assisted us moving him from the stretcher onto the trolley. The mortuary assistant was quite a lot shorter than me. As the trolley raised to the level of the top shelf for the freezer, he was on the opposite side and I lost sight of him. As the trolley reached it’s peak height I became aware of movement from the dead body. I looked up and saw the dead man’s arm going up and down such that the hand was making movements in a ‘self masturbatory way’ near to his groin as if he was jerking himself off.
A split second later, after something of a shock I realised the mortuary attendant, who I could no longer see as he was not tall enough to see over the trolley, was holding the dead guy’s arm and pushing it up and down. I was the last one to laugh, but laugh I did. That’s when I discovered that humour is a release valve from all the shit & derision you have to deal with in this job.
Most people don’t understand. Those who’ve been there do.