It probably sounds like a cliche to say it, but you get used to the smell. Perhaps that is the most important lesson I have learned from all of this: that anything becomes bearable, even the smell of decaying flesh. Not only does it become bearable, it becomes expected. Just as you expect your nostrils to be greeted by the smell of musty, dusty books when you walk into a library, so too do we expect the scent of death when we walk into the cooler or visit the coroner. And it just becomes part of the general ambiance of the day.
People have described it as a sour smell, but that’s only when the body has had time to start decomposing. A body that has been dead for only a day begins to develop its distinctive aroma after about 6 to 8 hours, depending on circumstances, although it can also take much longer or shorter. A freshly dead body smells more sweet than sour; it is the overripe sweetness one gets from a bouquet of flowers that have been left in a hot car all day. Or maybe I am conflating the aroma of actual flowers with that of death; in my mind, the two are inseparable. I’ve driven many a mile in a van crammed with flowers to a funeral after transporting multiple bodies; this mingled scent death and flowers has made it impossible to smell one without imagining the other.
We had a pick-up at the coroner’s office on Mission; Chloe, one of the assistant funeral directors, came along for the ride. The coroner’s office has several hundred bodies on hand at any given time, crammed into coolers designed for half that many. The air stinks with death so badly there, you can smell it as you approach. It is an industrial area; few people live in the neighborhood. On hot summer days, when the stench is so heavy it sticks to the lampposts and mailboxes and fire hydrants, I sometimes wonder if the rare passerby even is aware of what they are smelling. They probably aren’t; why would anyone assume it is death?
We drove up the long, narrow driveway with the windows up, but the smell seeped in through the air conditioning. “I used to think it was the worst smell in the world”, Chloe said. “But now I think it isn’t; there are worse smells.”
“Like what?”, I asked her.
“Like…I don’t know, like really bad garbage. Or burning plastic. Or sulfur…”
“Sulfur isn’t so bad”, I said. “You can get into sulfur when you get used to it”
“How about shit?” I asked her. “Isn’t that worse?”
“Well, I don’t love it or anything. But it has a certain earthiness to it; it still smells like life” I knew what she meant. The earthiness of life. It is a hard thing to put into words.
We parked and climbed out of the van. The office was ripe today. The oppressive smell of rotten meat, not unlike how a refrigerator filled with burger meat smells if it has been unplugged for a few days, hung in the air. However, we were used to it.
Our case had been a woman who had vanished from her home. The story was that she was disturbed, and had gone off in the middle of the night. She was found a couple of weeks later at the bottom of a cliff in San Pedro. She had remained unidentified for some time, but eventually she was matched by the remnants of a tattoo, which ironically said “Love Life” The coroner determined her death to be accidental; she had apparently slipped and fell to her death alone. Two weeks was long enough for serious decomposition to take place; she was particularly ripe, even through two layers of plastic. We got her on a gurney and stowed her in the back of the van.
We decided to take surface streets to the funeral home, and midway back, somewhere on Sunset Blvd., Chloe hit the automatic windows. “It’s just getting too much”, she said almost apologetically. “The fresh ones are nice, but when they’ve been out in the elements and then lying with hundreds of others… well, it gets on my clothes and in my hair. You know…” We rode in silence a little, and then she added, “I don’t know why that gets to me, but it does”
“Kid, it ought to always get to you”, I told her. It should, but it doesn’t. Just another rotten meat delivery; third of the day. We all stink like death by the end of the day.
Later, after we checked our case into the cooler, we took a stroll across the cemetery as the sun began to glow orange low in the sky. It was almost quitting time, and our cars were parked by the front gate. As we passed the marble monuments, some a century old, Chloe stopped.
“Smell me”, she said.
“What?”, I asked her, and she reached over and pulled my head close to her breast.
“Smell me. Is it in my clothes?” I breathed deeply, and caught a faint whiff of soap, perfume, and the vaguest hint of death on her blouse.
“A little. But unless someone knew what it was, they’d never realize it”
“My last boyfriend left me because of that smell. Can you imagine that?” she said, relinquishing my head and turning toward her car. “He said he’d leave if I didn’t stop working here. He said he couldn’t take the smell. But you know what? Half the time, he only imagined it. He’d complain I smelled like a dead body when I had spent the whole day in the office and after I took two showers. I told him I liked it here and that I didn’t want to quit. So, he left”
“Well, you know how people are about this line of work…”, I told her. Of course she knew, we all knew. People are skittish when they meet us; something about the death industry raises irrational fears in a lot of people. “Tell the next guy that you work in a beauty salon”
“No, I’m proud of where I work”, she told me, as she got behind the wheel of her car. “And I don’t mind the smell; I’d kind of miss it if it were gone.”