An unforgettable death

The first dead body I ever saw was my maternal grandmother.  I had been very close to her and her death, even though from old age, hurt.  Even so this one death did nothing to prepare me for the sights and emotions of deaths I encountered in my Police career.


I was on night shift in Lower Hutt and it was an average night for crime.  Then the call most of us dread came over the radio at 1:30am.


“Sudden death XX Avenue Stokes Valley.”  There was never anything pleasant about them and all you could hope for was a clean body.  The rotten ones were – well rotten.


My partner and I had all the required forms with us in the patrol car and headed to the address.  This was not a lights flashing job, in fact, we drove with the sombreness of a laden hearse.  Conversation was almost non-existent.  As we got near the address, we split up the work.  The choice was easy; one to deal with the family, the other with the body and mortuary duty.  At the address there was crossover, both helping each other out, but once the body left we then went into our separate roles.  I was to deal with the family.


The hardest thing about attending a sudden death was no crime had been committed and yet the family had the humiliation of the Police taking away their loved one.  The reality is a requirement under the Coroners Act, that if a registered medical practitioner cannot certify cause of death, it requires an investigation by the coroner and the Police (by law) are the Coroners Agents.


Stokes Valley was a state housing area, and in those days low socio-economic.  All the houses looked the same, same coloured paint, same shaped letterbox, and same sized section with the same fence.  Finding the letterbox number in the dark without drawing attention to ourselves is not easy.


We had no information as to what we were attending except Ambulance had requested us.  Our hope was to get a doctor to certify cause and we could get out off there.  My partner and I assembled the correct paper work in our folders and braced ourselves for what was ahead.  One of the Ambulance Officers met us at the front step.


“Thirty two year old female dead.  She has been suffering severe stomach pains all night and by the time we got here, it was too late.  The husband is distraught and they have a three year old who is asleep at the moment and unaware of what has happened.”


Great, a horrible emotional one!


We both walked in without our patrol caps.  It was one of the few times the bosses would not rollick us for failing to wear our caps.   The husband was slumped over the dining room table.  My guess is he would be a couple of years older than his wife would, but tonight he had the weight of the world on his heavy shoulders.


We both stumbled out an apology for being in his home at this time under these circumstances.  I have only just turned twenty one, with very little life experience and here I am expected to comfort and console this poor guy.  We explain why we are there and where could we find his wife.   The house is very plain, no carpets, just wooden floors.  He points down the hall and we see bedroom doors of both sides.  All these state houses look the same inside and out. The wall paper is old and faded. We know through experience which room is supposed to be the master bedroom. My partner and I are overly self-conscious of the noise of our Police regulation shoes on the wooden floor.


I go in the room first.  On the bed is the naked body.  Over forty years later, I still cannot get rid of the image of her face.  It was obvious she had died an incredibly painful death.  The problem was we had to treat it as a suspicious death until we had evidence to the contrary.  We took half the room each to check if there was anything suspicious – there was not.  Then we had to do a body examination, again for anything suspicious.  All the time the dead body watches us invade her privacy.  The body still has beads of perspiration, another clue this death was not a pleasant one and it was not long ago she died.


Now our duties split.  I have to talk to the husband to establish what went on.  The “talk” has to be a mixture of sympathy and suspicion.  I am single with no children – how do you fake empathy?  How do you hide suspicion?  Technically there are no grounds to be suspicious, but the training makes it that you never let your guard down for fear of missing something.


The husband tells me his wife, while preparing tea in their little kitchen, started to get stomach cramps.  As the evening wore on, she was in more and more pain.  His concern was growing so he rang the family GP to be told to ring in the morning and make an appointment at the clinic.   The GP had asked virtually no questions and the husband left the call feeling chastised.  Four more times during the night he rang the GP as his wife deteriorated.  On the last call, the GP said, “If you are so bloody concerned ring a damn Ambulance.”  


One last question.  “Why is your wife naked?” 


“She was sweating so much she had gone through three nighties – there are no more and she didn’t like having to try and get the clothes on.”


I was obliged to check there were three nighties in the wash basket.  There were. 


My partner had called a Police Doctor and had a Death Certificate.  The Funeral Director arrived and they had taken the stretcher into the bedroom.  My partner asked me to give them a hand.  I went into the bedroom and we put the wife’s body into a body bag on the stretcher.  The Funeral Director was about to zip the bag closed when a little voice peeped through the silence, “What are you doing to Mummy?”


I was the closest to the little guy and I had no idea what to do or say.  I sat down on the floor, pulled him onto my lap, and attempted to tell him Mummy had died and that we had to take her away so we could find out why.  A noise at the door caught my attention.  It was the husband.  I have no idea how long he had been there and silent tears rushed across the rapids of his face.  Our tear floodgates were internal, as we could not afford to show how this was affecting us all.


The father took his son down to the dining room while Mummy was carried outside into the darkness of the waiting hearse.  I put my arm around the father while he watched in silence.  My partner went in the hearse.


I asked the husband who he wanted to be with him for the rest of the night.  He gave me the name of his Minister and I made the call.  I stayed until the Minister arrived.


“Is Mummy going to heaven?”  Thank goodness, the Minister was there as that was no question for a single 21-year-old, naïve copper to answer.  I said that I would leave them alone and went out to the Patrol car.  I just sat in it for what seemed like eternity before I had the energy to fire the engine into life.  I did not have a key to my own engine.

Police deal with many deaths and I had my fair share.  Some the bodies were rotten, others mangled messes but it was the emotion of the scene that impacted on me more than the sights and smells. 


I complained to the Coroner about the standard of medical care.  Or should I say lack of care shown to this woman.  She had died of tubular pregnancy and if taken to hospital earlier she probably would have lived.  Nothing happened to the professionals and I never saw or heard from the father or son again, but I have never forgotten them or that night.  Darkness took on a new meaning  that night.


Bruce. What impressive writing. I felt as though I was in the room with you; my emotions in total identity with the young policeman. What a wonderful way to write memoir.

Yes, agree with the previous comments. You capture the emotion of the young cop well and the interior of the house. Keep them coming.

First times of anything are incredibly memorable. Good on you for exposing this much of your life.

As always a wonderful read and with this chapter, one I can relate too. I found a dead body washed up on the river Thames beach where I lived as a young boy. I had nightmares for a long time after and to this day can still see the man and breath in and smell the stench. Its very real and something you never forget. Your chapters give us a real sense of the kind of police work most people would rather not think about as opposed to the everyday traffic or patrol work. These chapters are a sharp reminder how much we owe the men and women who serve in the emergency services. Great piece of work Bruce.