Features

A sudden death


In a poor district of one of Canada's largest cities, policemen arrive at an apartment from which a bad smell is drifting. They both know what lurks behind that nondescript front door. But on occasion even they - who have seen it all - can be surprised.

The term ‘sudden death’ is usually reserved for the melodrama of professional sport – one more goal and it’s all over. It has another, far more literal meaning. In Canadian policing, a call for service generated by the unexpected discovery of a corpse is referred to as a Sudden Death. The term is apt: very few of us are prepared, not just for the Reaper, but for the second guest, me: the nosy policeman. At first glance the term appears to be a misnomer. Most ‘sudden’ death calls occur when neighbours in anonymous high rise buildings are no longer able to ignore the steadily worsening odour of death wafting down the hallway. As such, there is often nothing sudden about these deaths; the corpse is stale, dated, and everyone knows exactly what lies behind that door.

In these long hours, as the suddenly dead’s life is slowly prised open, the real adventure begins

I work as a police officer in a poor, densely populated corner of one of Canada’s largest cities. Most of the sudden deaths to which I am dispatched follow this malodorous pattern of discovery. At the scene, my duties are straightforward, unchanging: look for signs of foul play; determine the deceased’s identity; locate a next of kin; search out and seize valuables for safekeeping; and to await the arrival of first a coroner, and then body removers. I’ve spent many hours alone with the swollen, mouldering departed, picking through the detritus of their lives.

In these long hours, as the suddenly dead’s life is slowly prised open, the real adventure begins.

There are cases where the deceased has made his or her arrangements: old love letters destroyed, pornography piles removed, internet histories purged. There are those who remain as meticulous in death as they were in life – particularly when the moment of death is carefully selected. Some men and women who opt for suicide have carefully laid out instructions, explanatory notes, and their government-issue photo ID.

These folks, God love them, are few and far between.

More common is a scenario such as the following, which recently unfolded for me and my partner.

On entering a small, cluttered, but clean one-bedroom apartment, he was impossible to miss. At the end of the hallway, sprawled naked on the bed, was the suddenly dead, 75 year-old Mr. LaPierre.

By our standards, LaPierre was in relatively good shape. A mossy green cast was just taking hold, the swelling noticeable but not yet grotesquely bulbous. The smell, the most potent part of any sudden death, had been kept to a minimum, thanks to the strange but welcome presence of no fewer than four air purifiers, all humming away in LaPierre’s 500 square foot apartment.

At the end of the hallway, sprawled naked on the bed, was the suddenly dead, 75 year-old Mr. LaPierre

At his feet was a pair of knee-high leather boots. Boots, in fact, were everywhere: engineer boots, firefighter boots, work boots, cowboy boots. Along with a collection of fireman’s helmets, a plus-size leather wardrobe (the creation of which had clearly decimated an entire herd) hung in a corner of the bedroom, dangling from a sex swing, which – sadly enough – looked little used. Next to LaPierre lay a pair of nipple clamps. The top drawer of a bedside dresser, slightly ajar, contained myriad sexual aides, lubed-up and ready for action.

Less salacious but perhaps more interesting, were the items that seemed to signal the meeting of LaPierre’s particular sexual fetish with his intellectual curiosity: two nineteenth-century brass fire hose nozzles adorned the bedroom window sill, and a four-part documentary series on the history of steam engines beckoned from a shelf below the TV. This overlap even extended to popular culture: between the pornographic offerings (as expected of leather and rubber-clad bears) was a VHS copy of the 1991 fireman-laden thriller Backdraft. Perhaps the most niche fetish item of all was a stack of Canada Customs baseball caps. I’m guessing the Craigslist ad stayed up for a long time before Mr. LaPierre found a willing partner in that particular fantasy.

As with any sudden death, there were the more prosaic mysteries as well. Why would someone own so many tiffany-style lamps and not plug in any of them? Who keeps what had to be at least 75 onions on hand in the crisper drawer of their refrigerator? Perhaps most disturbing from a policeman’s perspective, why have so many decanters, flasks, and other vessels for serving alcohol in your home, but absolutely no booze?

As surely as if he had been crushed by an avalanche of leather boots and firefighter gear, LaPierre was killed by his own sexual desire

When she arrived the coroner, a vivacious blonde French-Canadian with a profoundly dark sense of humour, had no problem discerning the obvious. Mr. LaPierre’s heart, already strained by age, weight, and hypertension, simply could not keep up with his desire for sexual self-gratification. As surely as if he had been crushed by an avalanche of leather boots and firefighter gear, LaPierre was killed by his own sexual desire.

My police training taught me how to investigate death, not how to find meaning in life. I don’t know if the curiosities and mysteries revealed when their owner is found suddenly dead have any deeper meaning. They tend to tell sadly comic stories to those of us with a professional familiarity with the dead. In my amusement with the secrets of the departed, I feel an almost conspiratorial honesty. Although dark and even sardonic, it actually serves to attach a final measure of humanity to what is otherwise just a decaying heap of flesh.

As for Mr. LaPierre, he at least – one hopes – found a happy ending.