Today, I thought it would just be interesting to tell you about the very first time I saw a dead body. Because… well, I think I should.
If I’m going to talk about the need to normalise the conversation around death, then I think it’s on me to ‘walk my talk’.
My First Body
I saw my very first dead body almost 20 years ago when I was in my early 20s.
I had gone abroad for a few weeks to volunteer at an orphanage and whilst I was there a teenager (he was 13) had been brought in off the city streets.
He was extremely ill and died from AIDS. Looking back, there are three things in particular that have stuck with me.
As volunteers, we were invited to visit the body to pay our last respects and say goodbye.
It was laid out in the room on a mattress and I remember being surprised (I wouldn’t call it shocked) at how emaciated his body was. The combination of living on the streets and his illness meant that he was extremely thin.
I remember his body being quite skeletal although I have no idea whether that is an accurate depiction or my memory misleading me but I don’t recall ever thinking otherwise.
The second thing I remember vividly was that silver coins had been placed over his eyes.
The reason I don’t question my memory here is because I happen to be particularly squeamish about anything eye-related and in this instance, his eyelids did not properly close and I could see the coins were partially resting on his eyeballs which had rolled back.
This is in no way unusual but I didn’t know that at the time and I found it somewhat disconcerting.
Side note: for the longest time I opted-in to every box for organ donation except corneas because… well, my thinking was that I would remain squeamish about eyes, even after death.
Because – what if I need them for some reason??! I’ve since had a stern word with myself and even before the automatic opt-in laws came into effect in England and Wales, I realised that I’m definitely not going to need them when I’m dead but someone else will.
I can’t think of many things I would be privileged to do than give the gift of sight, if I am able.
The third thing I remember is also clear. I…. wept. I wouldn’t say I full-on cried, but I did have tears rolling down my face.
I found it incredibly sad that this young life was gone and whilst I didn’t know him, I was sorry that his life had been so difficult and that it had ended that way.
I’m quite an emotional person by nature, anyway and I cry very easily in all kinds of situations, so it was no shock to me at all that I cried then.
What was a little more surprising, was that all the other young people who were around found my tears hilarious!
They thought it was really amusing that this person from a different country (and it wasn’t just me you know, some of the other volunteers cried too) was so upset and couldn’t really understand why.
It was explained to us afterwards that their reaction was different because they were used to death.
They had seen many people die both adults and children and death was part of their ‘normal’. So the idea that that was upsetting to these strangers was just incomprehensible to them.
The Non-Punch Line
And I wasn’t really sure what to make of it at the time. And, really, I’m not entirely certain what to make of it now.
You may be wondering why I’m sharing this story. What’s the big punch line? What’s the lesson to be learned here? And really, there isn’t one.
And that’s sort of the point.
How we view death is incredibly influenced by the people around us, our society, and the culture that we grow up in. That’s our ‘normal’.
But it’s important to remember that if you go to other places around the world -and sometimes you don’t need to go very far – those societies and those cultures will have a very different way of viewing death.
They will treat it in a different way. And it’s not that one is right and one is wrong, it’s just whichever way you have become accustomed to and what seems normal to you.
If there’s a lesson in this story, I think it’s that death has meaning for different people in different ways, and we can all learn something from that.
Appearances Are … Just That
I think there’s perhaps also something to be said for, ‘you can’t just look at somebody and know their story’.
There will be lots of people who know me today, in my current life, who have no idea that this was an experience that I had all those years ago.
Because it’s not something that comes up every day, you know, that I just mention in passing. But it is something I remember.
It is something that shaped me.
And it’s something that I reflect on from time to time and it’s important to me that I don’t forget that.
But if you just met me, you wouldn’t know, in the same way that I don’t know what experiences you’ve had which you may, or may not, care to share.
So, if I can just leave you with the thought that people’s experiences are often not visible, and that what seems obvious and normal to us, may not be to someone else.
And I think the message I’d really like to convey is, ‘Be kind’.
This world needs kindness. When people experience death, bereavement, loss; they need kindness, and this world needs kindness right now.
Thank you so much for reading and until next time, take care.