“He’s dead, Jim.”
That line was one of the more iconic utterances from the original Star Trek television series of the mid-1960s.
Our own horror show for today is a quick examination of issues you must confront when dealing with the Formerly Living (the new politically correct term for dead persons).
This is certainly an uncomfortable topic, but for those who profess to be warriors of some ilk, there is a good chance you will someday confront this possible outcome of violence. Even if you don’t, there may a dark night when you happen upon a fatal traffic accident and find yourself thrust into a position that is mightily uncomfortable. This is unpleasant stuff, but it should still be filed somewhere in your cranium.
The first and perhaps biggest obstacle in dealing with dead people is you. We are all naturally squeamish when it comes to the subject, some more so than others. Death is such an uncomfortable concept that it’s difficult to get past your own personal phobias and general mental baggage when faced with a dead person.
That’s completely normal, but the bottom line is that there are things to do at such a moment. Lock your feelings into a steel box deep inside your mind and carry on with the tasks at hand. As they say, it is simple but not easy. Pre-visualization and mental rehearsal ahead of time are somewhat helpful in this regard.
When confronting a possibly dead person, we first and foremost need to determine if they are actually deceased, but only after the situation has been rendered safe. Don’t rush. If someone is dead, they’ll remain dead the few minutes you need to make sure you don’t join them. Even if it takes hours, your safety is paramount—don’t die for a dead person.
Once things are secure, check the victim for signs of life. If someone was beheaded in a car crash, their status is pretty self-evident, but you might occasionally be surprised during less spectacular incidents.
A few years ago, several of my fellow officers were horribly embarrassed when they had to cancel their request for the Coroner’s Office (Medical Examiner) after an elderly “deceased” man sat up to ask what the commotion outside was.
He had been lying in copious amounts of his own filth, and no one wanted to touch him. Thus, they simply called for the Coroner on the radio since he was “obviously” dead. Moments later, they phoned a hysterically laughing dispatcher to cancel the request.
Lesson learned: check to see if they are dead, and then check again. When determining death, check the neck for a carotid pulse for at least 30 seconds. Then put a hand flat on their chest to determine any breathing activity. Check to see if their pupils respond to light and look for any post-mortem rigidity or pooling of blood in the lowest parts of the body. Taken in total, these are positive signs of death.
Don’t be fooled by reduced body temperature, especially in those exposed to cold water or air. If there is the slightest doubt, render appropriate medical aid until a higher authority, your safety, or common sense dictates that you cease efforts.
Once someone is determined to be dead, you must notify the authorities immediately. While waiting, don’t do anything to the body or surroundings and prevent anyone else from disturbing them. Placing a covering over the body is acceptable, especially in a public place.
If someone dies in unusual or unknown circumstances, every state has laws that require a thorough investigation. Depending on the situation and location, your call might bring police officers from various agencies, the prosecuting attorney, crime scene technicians, Medical Examiner or Coroner’s staff, paramedics, the fire department, victim advocates, and more.
Know that an “unknown” death is always considered a major incident, and dozens upon dozens of “officials” of every stripe, legal authority, and usefulness will likely show up.
You are obliged to answer basic questions for law enforcement officials such as the general circumstances of the incident and your identity. But be careful about saying too much at this point, because in the aftermath of any highly charged situation, people tend to blather uncontrollably.
If you are merely an unconnected witness, you’ll probably just end up wasting a few hours being interviewed, but if the person died as a result of something in which you were directly or indirectly connected, your words might end up in criminal and/or civil proceedings. This is one reason that anyone who carries a firearm for selfdefense should have a long talk with a qualified attorney about such matters before they happen.
If possible, only handle deceased persons with personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks. Acquiring diseases from a fresh corpse is rather uncommon, but it still pays to use caution, especially if the victim is known to have a communicable disease. Assume they did.
If you have the unfortunate task of helping move a decomposing body, the sight and smell can be profoundly overwhelming. Take it from an expert: cigars. After seeing every possible smell-mitigation technique fail, I have found that puffing on a cigar, even for non-smokers, is one of the only things that (almost) keeps the odors reasonably at bay.
Of course, vomiting does help. However, try to be discrete because the spectacle of robust purging is wholly contagious.
Trust me on that one, too.