My partner and I drove down the quiet neighborhood street in our unmarked navy blue van. We had left the funeral home about 20 minutes earlier after being given a “house call” assignment from our supervisor. A house call was an event that would include picking up a deceased body from a residence. It could be tricky since the person could have expired in a variety of hard to get to places within the home. Often we found them laying in their bed, or often-times laid out on the floor after having collapsed form some unexpected ailment such as a heart attack. We did not have any reason to believe that this assignment would be any more difficult than any other house call, but we became suspicious that something was up when we saw a police car parked in front of the home and two officers waiting outside.
It was not uncommon to have a police officer on the scene of a death that had occurred in the home. They often would wait for s to arrive and promptly leave upon seeing our van drive up. Something seemed different about this case. The officers met us at the van with a dazed look on their face. They said, “you don’t want to go in there without a mask.” Officers were generally experienced in situations involving death and nothing ever seemed to phase them. But these two looked as though they were ready to vomit at the slightest provocation. “There’s a cat in the house, seems to be the lady’s pet. We’ll call animal control. The lady has been here, we suspect, for about three days. She’s in the bathroom.” With that information, the cops got in their cruiser and left.
My partner looked at me and we non-verbally agreed that we needed masks. Life a reflex, we opened the back van doors and rummaged through our stash of emergency protective clothing. We found our masks, which had been specially fitted for our faces – designed to keep out the most horrific smells or fumes that might be in the air. Luckily the masks worked very well.
We went in the house. It had been lived in by and elderly lady who had, as the officers indicated, a cat…perhaps more than one. The house was dark with thick avocado and mustard yellow drapes drawn. The kitchen was a mess, outfitted with all the best the 1970’s had to offer in appliances. The carpet, a green shag was worn with time and covered in pet hair.
We slowly walked down the narrow hallway toward the bathroom. The door was closed. My partner looked at me as if to say, “here goes!” as he slowly opened the door. Inside, we found about an inch of sitting water on the floor, caused by some sort of toilet overflow. On the toilet sat the deceased, her mouth agape and her milky eyes staring straight ahead. She was slumped slightly to her right toward the bathtub. She was perhaps in her late seventies or early eighties. The bathroom was very small, even for one person.
The officer’s assessment was correct. The lady had probably been dead for about three days. With no family around to know, a neighbor had called the police after noticing her newspapers collecting in the driveway and hearing the moans of her cat from inside.
The dilemma we faced was tricky. Most of her blood had collected in her feet and ankles, having been sitting upright for three days with no circulation. Her thin skin would most likely give way at the slightest movement of her body. We would have a huge mess on our hands if we were not careful.
My partner and I went back out to the van to assemble a plan of action. Our task was to remove her body by placing it in a body bag and on a gurney. There was no room on the floor of the bathroom to lay out a body bag and place her inside. We would have to somehow pick her up and carry her out, down the hallway, and into the living room in order to place her in the body bag. But how would we do it without getting blood and body fluid all over the house and ourselves?
My partner, who was currently in school to become a criminologist was not one’s idea of a funeral home removal staff worker. He was in his mid-twenties, with designer glasses and a clean cut hair style. He looked very studious and smart. And in fact, he was. Often quiet, he was confident and in control. I was glad to have him on this job with me. The others on our staff would have wanted to make crude jokes or outlandish exclamations about the situation. We would have spent much of our time talking about how gross it was and how we didn’t want to touch her rather than just getting the job done. My partner, though disgusted, was level headed and had ideas of how to get the woman off the toilet and into the body bag.
The plan was for one of us to get on her right side the other on the left, and gently lift her from under her arms and carry her out the door. We could not hold her by her legs in fear of them falling apart. This sounds exaggerated, but it was a valid fear.
We set the gurney up in the living room. The grey body bag was placed on the floor and unzipped. Would it hold the blood and fluid sure to seep out? Probably not. But we could always double bag her if needed.
We put on protective gear over our clothes and shoes. Our masks were in place and we were on or way into the bathroom. We had discussed the need to move very slow and gentle so that her legs and feet would not gush open. I got on the left between the bathtub and the body. My partner got on the right and with a visual cue we both gently lifted.
It was only a few seconds before we noticed blood and fluid rising up past the souls of our protected shoes. Her ankles had busted. There was nothing left to do to prevent it. Blood and fluid filled the entire bathroom floor. We quickly moved her out into the hallway and into the living room. Her body was frail and the skin was literally peeling off in our hands. We had made a mess of the house, but it was something we could not avoid.
The entire task took us about an hour. We slowly removed the soiled protective wear at the rear of our van, being careful not to touch any of the fluid, blood, or skin that had attached itself to the material.
On the way back to the funeral home, I realized that my partner and I had not spoken very many words the entire time during the removal. We had been communicating with eye contact and nods only. Most likely, we did not want to open out mouths and intake any of the putrid air that surrounded us, even though we had masks protecting us.
I cannot remember what we did about the required ankle tag we were supposed to place on the body. I’m guessing we put it on her wrist.