I still remember the first time I smelled brain. It was my grandfather, cracking open the skulls of squirrels he’d killed. They’d scamper down the sides of pecans and live oaks among the Louisiana timbers where I grew up, enter his sights—then, oblivion.
I was very small then, so it never seemed odd when those brains found their way into the scrambled eggs my grandmother would cook up for Papaw. When I was there I’d have some too. The gray matter of tree rats adds a certain sweetness generally absent from an otherwise bland backwoods diet.
When I was older, and working in the morgue, the scent would hang in my nostrils for days. Maybe it was the acrid combination of blood and cerebral spinal fluid. The smell of souls.
I vividly remember the last time I smelled brain. It was July 2004, and I was peering up at the underside of a Camry. I lay on my back considering the strata of accumulated road filth, spots of tar, and oil coating the wheel wells, tires, and front axle. Wedged among the dark-speckled tapestry were brilliant arrays of pink and gray. They had accumulated in little globs that organically glistened among the machinery. Some hung like stalactites, their tips pointing at my nose. Others were smeared here and there—evidence of something brutal and violent.
These particular bits of brain belonged to a 23-month-old child. Earlier that day, his mother had dropped him off at his grandmother’s house. As she pulled out of the driveway, the child ran back, perhaps to say goodbye to his momma one last time. She would later recount the slight bump she felt as she turned the wheel and drove away. Obviously she had no idea that bump was her son’s skull being crushed between a tire and the outstretched roots of a pine tree. She continued on, unknowingly spraying her son’s brains across the underside of her car.
When I arrived on the scene, the paramedics had already shot her up with Ativan. She had been whirling about, slamming her head into the pavement, screaming and tearing at her blouse. In the context of morbidity, one could say that she finally had a true purpose. Bile burned in her throat. Maybe for the first time in a while she felt aware of her flesh, tingling with fear, the nausea causing vomit to rise from her gut.
I can tell you from more than 30 years of experience that this is the sort of awakening that death investigators witness daily. It is part of our job to watch humans as they awake from the illusion of happiness, ripped from their mundane existence by the ferocity of death. When this inevitable reality finally punches them in the face, it plunges many of these people into madness.
On my second date with my wife, she quipped, “I never thought about death till I met you.” In my view, death is the fart of an old person that’s politely ignored. One that most folks don’t turn into their profession. For my colleagues and me, death is a siren song. One with crescendos of blood, maggots, trauma, and screams that, for whatever reason, lure us in.
I’ve spent most of my life employed as a medicolegal death investigator. My career began at a coroner’s office in New Orleans, and it concluded more than three decades later following my tenure as a senior investigator with the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office in Atlanta. During that time, I participated in 7,000 forensic autopsies and completed more than 2,000 next-of-kin death notifications. Eventually, the stress was just too much, and in 2005 I was forced to retire after suffering from crippling anxiety and PTSD.
I have investigated all manners of deaths: homicides, suicides, and accidents—both natural and inexplicable. My job was to understand the various mechanisms that end people. I had no interest in convictions or those who were arrested or who got away with murder. That was the cops’ problem. I was just the nosy geek who dug around crime scenes. The answers that I sought were, while many times salacious, much more complex than an investigation into the drive-by shooting of a crack dealer.
I had three main tools to arrive at my answers: autopsy, toxicology, and microscopic tissue examination. When these assets are combined with an investigator who understands forensic applications, the right questions to ask, and how to integrate the information collected in the field with physical findings in the lab, they become highly effective methods of solving complex questions.
On first hearing what I did for a living, most people’s reaction was to open up about their deepest fears of death: “I don’t want you to see me naked in the morgue!” I assure you that after the last breath leaves your nostrils, your lack of toned abs, penis length, or cup size is the last thing you should be concerned about. Your death is a “golden ticket” for various types of voyeurs and sociopaths carrying a badge. We have backstage passes for things you never wanted anyone to know and can no longer defend. We stand over your remains, shaking our heads over pathetic suicide notes, snickering at your taste in porn or the medication you failed to take before you became the dead. We judge you because you happened to die on our watch. It’s our job, and I bet you make fun of and bitch about a lot of people at your workplace too.
Many death investigators hold the dead in contempt. The stories the dead tell are always slightly different, but they all end the same, and the investigators are often the only ones who bother to read them. I learned early on that it was fruitless for me to care about the dead, for they are unaware. They are meat that used to have a pulse.
I couldn’t care less about the families whose lives I destroyed with bad news about their expired love ones, because I had no more room in my head for screams and hysteria. But somehow I did not become unhinged.
What kept me nailed to the floor was the science behind it all. The “How” never accused you of failing the dead; it never writhed in pain from the reality of the finality of absence. It was simply a mechanism. Most folks, by way of their own vanity, never realize that who they are, what happens to them, or where they are will never really matter to a seasoned death investigator. If we focused on that, we wouldn’t last a year on the job. Focusing on the particulars in a cold and calculating way provides the intellectual stimulation that allows us to slog on. Ironically, a death investigator comes to terms with the fact that, for most of us, the “How” is the coping mechanism we use to survive. Anything more macro will have you deep-throating a pistol in no time.
Investigating death, of course, raises existential questions of morality and mortality. And there is one question that is more prevalent than the rest: Of the seven deadly sins, which best sums up the ills and follies of mankind?
If researchers were to gather a group of crime-scene investigators, medical-examiner investigators, homicide detectives, and other forensic practitioners into a room and pose this simple question, I believe the vote would tally squarely on gluttony. Not in the sense of Falstaff drowning in a tankard of ale, or of engorgement on lamb hocks, but rather the gluttony of daily life. Most of us live like starving hounds, sitting and slobbering at the backdoor of life, waiting for slop to be delivered by our master.
I am chief among sinners. In my years as a death investigator, death owned me. It’s all I thought about. I lived in fear that I would die at any moment and numbed myself through chronic masturbation and food. It wasn’t uncommon for me to leave a scene stinking of decomposing bodies and race to the Burger King drive-through to order two Triple Whoppers with cheese, rushing home to slather on more mayonnaise before forcing them into my mouth with hands still dusted with talcum powder from the exam gloves. The soothing wash of food, alcohol, and self-love would last until the next call, or until the next vision of destroyed humans entered my mind’s eye.
When I started my career, working for the coroner’s office in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, death investigators were required to assist in autopsies. “Assist” kind of cleans it up a bit. The process demands little to no formal training, just simple application of the “cold steel” wherever the forensic pathologist tells you. After a time, doing autopsies feels like making biscuits: Turn the lights on, take the dough out of the refrigerator, roll it out, cut it up. In fact, it’s more like butchery. You use only the sharpest instruments to cut up corpses—“tongue to nuts,” as we called it.
I was good at it. My fastest time was less than four minutes. It’s a curious thing to slice through somebody’s chest, using limb shears to remove the ribs and sternum. At first all bodies looked the same, but the more I gutted, the better I became at interpreting what I was seeing: bullets tracking through the bowels, rebar entering the eye and settling in the brain, hearts the size of Christmas hams, women with fake tits accentuated by bellies full of pills.
Death scenes are no different. Everyone thinks he’s mommy’s little angel, but in death you’re nothing. Bodies lie lifeless before the investigator like crushed roaches or deer struck by cars.
As an investigator, you look for evidence. You slouch through the motions. Sometimes you take the work seriously; at other times you barely meet the baseline. The general population views death investigators as heroes who seek justice, caring for the dead as if they were relatives. Wake up. It’s like church and Hollywood—a false front. Every now and then something stirs in you, but most of the time it’s mental masturbation with no happy ending. There are always more bodies calling for your attention.
It was hot and humid when I arrived at the Texas Inn on Airline Highway in New Orleans. This strip was once infamous as a haunt for mob figures, but it’s always been a home for pimps and sore-laden whores, scratching themselves, unable to focus on my questions. During my tenure in New Orleans, any number of homicides, overdoses, and suicides happened in the “no-tell motels” along Airline. The rooms were always dirty, with an unknown black substance caked into the carpet like Silly Putty shit out by a monkey with dysentery. These spots clutched at your feet like a vile form of quicksand.
As I entered the motel room, a man in his late 50s with salt-and-pepper hair lay naked on the floor, purple from the nipple line to the top of his head. His tongue protruded, clenched between his teeth, and his eyes seemed like they were about to pop out of his skull. A rubber rested loosely over his now flaccid penis, which was surrounded by crusty pubic hair, and his body lay in a puddle of liquid feces. Witnesses and the desk clerk told me that a local lady who regularly sold her body to pay for crack was seen running from the room in only a denim miniskirt, her breasts exposed, screaming.
This kind of scene is not uncommon. Prostitutes often have disagreements with their johns. When we spoke to her and examined the body, nothing pointed to signs of trauma. The room was as ordered as any other room in that hellhole could be.
I interviewed the prostitute in the manager’s office as she trembled and chain-smoked Virginia Slims. Her shoulders were draped by a sheet that hung over her stained denim skirt and black flip-flops, which used to be pink. She told us that the bald man had picked her up at least twice a week for the past month, and one time he’d paid for an entire day, a point she seemed particularly proud of. Still, she begged me not to take her back to jail. “Look,” I told her, “if you did nothing wrong, nobody is going to jail.”
On this particular day, the bald man had picked her up on the street behind the Texas Inn, telling her he didn’t have much time. She paid for the room, and when they got the key and entered the room, he started rubbing her all over. I sat there, like so many other times before, listening to what many would find prurient. By this time in my career I was far from being interested in the goings-on at any of these motels—it all seemed to be on a loop, and I struggled to concentrate on the details.
She told me how she’d put the condom in place with her special technique, which, according to her, involved her nose and teeth. When she got on top of him, his face was red and he was sweating. He grabbed her shoulders and pulled her down, coughing loudly and spitting into her face. Then his tongue stuck out and he started straining and farting, and she ran out of the room.
The man, as it turned out, had suffered a heart attack. The autopsy later revealed that two major arteries were blocked. It’s not uncommon for men to go into cardiac arrest during the throes of intercourse, or even while rubbing one out—no surprises here. But as usual, it fell upon me to track down the next of kin to deliver the news of his death, so my partner and I drove to the address listed on his license.
The home was located in a neat little neighborhood in suburban New Orleans. Like many of the homes in this distinctly Catholic city, religious iconography lined the yard—a shrine to the Blessed Virgin on the left and a shrine to the Sacred Heart on the right. My colleague, who was usually hungover or still drunk, climbed the steps behind me. As I knocked on the door and pulled out my coroner’s badge, I heard the footsteps coming toward us. The bald man’s wife stood there, maybe five feet tall, with dyed black hair and pink terry cloth slippers.
I introduced myself. My partner said nothing. I felt my stomach seizing up on me, as it always did. Next-of-kin notifications are usually filled with horror for the family and are always potentially dangerous. I hated doing them.
She let us in without saying a word, and just as I was about to impale her with the news of her husband’s death, she looked at me and said, “He’s dead, ain’t he?” Pope John Paul II stared at me from his position on the wall. I stood there for a moment, stunned, not knowing what to make of her. Many people said the same thing when they saw my badge, but her tone put me on my heels.
“Ma’am,” I said, “I need you to sit down.”
She didn’t sit. “He was with a whore, wasn’t he?”
My jaw dropped. “Ma’am,” I tried again, “please sit down.” She sat on her plastic-wrapped couch, her knees slightly spread, hands fisted at her side, leaning forward on her toes. “Your husband is dead.”
She vaulted into the air, shouting, “You mean to tell me I’m off my cross in this life? He’s burning in hell! Hallelujah! God has heard my prayers and delivered me! Do you know how many years I’ve waited for this? Praise God! I couldn’t divorce him, but God heard my prayers and delivered me!”
She asked me again if he’d been with a whore when he died, and I told her he was with a lady at a motel down on Airline. “A whore! I knew it!” She danced around the living room, offering praise to the Heavenly Father. Before I left, I told her where the body would be, and that she’d need to make arrangements with the local funeral home. I handed her my card and walked out of the house toward my car. She stood in the doorway, smiling and waving.
That kind of marked me as an investigator. It was the only time I had brought someone pure joy. Joy, not closure, a word I despise. It was surreal.
Four weeks later my secretary handed me a gold-embossed envelope addressed to me in beautiful calligraphy. It’s not uncommon for death investigators to receive thank-you cards, but this one was different. It was an invitation to a party, called “A Celebration of Death.” The wife was past her mourning stage and wanted the world to know she was off her cross. I didn’t attend, but I can’t help myself from smiling when I think back on it.
By the time I get to you, you’ll have died at one of three places: at the scene, on the way to the ER, or in the hospital. The chances that the last words you hear will be “I love you” are infinitesimally low. Most people die with the hollow dinging of hospital equipment ringing in their ears, if not the screaming of sirens, blasts of gunfire, crunching of metal, or crackle of radios.
If you die on the scene, or in the ambulance, your spirit will pass from you on some county or federal roadway, floating over the roofs of Cracker Barrels and Jiffy Lubes. If you survive the trip to the hospital, your last thoughts will be of sliding through sci-fi double doors—no control, strapped to a gurney with strange hands touching you and pushing those who care for you away.
After the machines are turned off, the IVs will be removed, your pockets will be emptied, and you’ll be stuffed into a black plastic “morgue pack” so some kid working his way through college can push what’s left of you down a hall. He’ll bump you into walls, wave at the nurse he wants to screw, wonder whether it’s time to eat. He’ll wheel you into the morgue, struggling with the door, since there will be no one there to help him. By now, no one will be interested in you anymore, not even the housekeeper cleaning your blood from the floor of the ER. What’s the point? she’ll think as she wrings your blood into a mop bucket. Them folks are just gonna mess it up again.
The young student will grab your feet and swing you onto the cooler’s stainless steel tray. This is the hard part. He has to get your upper body into the tray. Sometimes he forgets to lock the wheels on the gurney, or other times he’s too stoned, so your body may fall off and hit the floor. After brawling with your body long enough to get you on the tray, your weight will pinch his hand between the tray and your shoulder, and the last words that bounce off your eardrums will be a muffled “piece of shit” before you’re slammed into the pod. Despite the cold, your decay begins.
If it is deemed necessary, the medical examiner will claim your remains and take a look at you. A pathologist I once knew referred to this process as “making human canoes.” The law sometimes demands it, families request it, and pathologists need it as justification for their jobs. Your body will be measured, weighed, opened, and split. Portions of your organs will be kept in what look like Cool Whip containers, the rest thrown into plastic trash bags and eventually stuffed back into your chest cavity. Your torso will then be sewn up with stitches that look like baseball seams.
If your family cares, maybe you’ll be claimed. Eventually, you’ll be moved to an elegantly adorned “home” built on the profits from the dead. Your next of kin will sit on expensively covered sofas and chairs, weeping. Funeral directors, morticians, and undertakers will speak in a tone and cadence that will set the mood for crying. Hushed and still, lacking swiftness in movement, but all with a specific purpose, they’ll press their scripted pitch to those still in shock. The air will be pumped with peaceful music.
While the preacher is arranged and payments are made, you’ll be in the back room. Your blood will be drained out and replaced with sickly-sweet-smelling fluids, and your mouth will be wired shut.
Our dead are prepared and hauled off to eternity by those who never knew them, and years later families say they are still seeking “closure.” Ultimately, we have institutionalized our very beginnings as well as our ends. All that remains of our start in this life is images from a camera operated by someone who in times past would have been warming a blanket, swabbing a sweaty brow, or cutting a cord. As the dead bid a final fare-thee-well, they are honored with PowerPoint presentations set to music we think they liked. It all seems as cheap and pointless as Mardi Gras beads.
The old adage among death investigators is, “We speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves.” Do the dead really wish to be spoken for?
That statement neatly ties things up and makes it easier for us as a people to ignore death and the bigger questions we may have about life. Solving mysteries wears thin after a while, at least it did for me. Nothing that I ever did as an investigator stopped people from killing one another or themselves; I just kept answering the same questions. Humans rarely, if ever, learn from the choices of others. All that is left is the memory of bloated forgotten men and women, tortured children, and screams.
A few years back I was in charge of an undergraduate student from Tulane University who had been selected for a summer internship at the Medical Examiner’s Office in Atlanta. She was majoring in physical anthropology and, per our telephone interview, really knew her stuff regarding forensics. My colleagues and I felt that she would be a good fit.
Summer is the height of decomp season, and with the heat comes an increased weekly flow of bloated carcasses. If a student is going to make it as a practitioner, this is a great test. These internships are highly competitive, and we had to be selective.
The student arrived at the start of the day shift, 6:30 AM. When she walked into the investigative area, the three of us, drinking our coffee, couldn’t but stare. Two or three skull necklaces hung from her neck. Spikes jutted out from bracelets on both wrists. She wore a cut-off Misfits T-shirt, revealing a paper-white stomach and navel adorned with shiny piercings. Around her waist was a gray-and-black plaid miniskirt and some kind of black leather belt with a buckle in the shape of a revolver. Without extending her hand, she introduced herself and wanted to know whether we had any autopsies she could attend that day.
Of course, being the brutally honest investigators that we were, we collectively said, “Not dressed like that.” All we thought about was death, all day, every day. But we avoided connotations of morbidity, fearful that notified family members would view us as the Angels of Death. Our staff giggled as we sent her home to change.
I teach college now, and from time to time I see a student walking around campus, nails painted black, hair dyed black, skin as white as ivory, begging to experience death. I smile and think to myself, Glad it’s not me who has to notify the parents.
Joseph Scott Morgan is currently the Distinguished Scholar of Applied Forensics at Jacksonville State University. He was the 2013 Georgia Author of the Year for his memoir, Blood Beneath My Feet: The Journey of a Southern Death Investigator. Follow him on Twitter.