Death is really only sad for the living. The family, friends and loved ones left behind. Death has no emotion of its own, yet it screams out for emotion from everyone around it. The death of a parent, child sibling, or friend affects us, all of us. No one is immune from the emotional loss and finality of it.
Members of the forensic community are trained to look at death from a clinical perspective. Failing to be able to remain objective restricts the efforts of the examiner. To compensate for that, it is often that we must make identifications so clinical, that it might seem to outsiders that we’re unaffected by the very natural process of dying. People who deal with death in their professions are trained to look at death, and dying, from a different perspective than that of family members, friends and loved ones. When forensic scientists are allowed to see the human element side of the identification process, the effects of death become almost surreal to the investigator. They become affected by it in a very real sense. It happens to every one of us.
As a forensic odontologist at 9-11, it was very difficult to separate myself emotionally from the task at hand; identifying the remains of those who died in the terrorist attack. Perhaps it was due to the enormity of the foreign invasion, maybe it was because of our inability to isolate ourselves from the emotional toll, while hundreds of family members gathered outside the morgue every day holding photos of their missing loved ones.
Twelve years later, those thoughts still haunt me. While we are professionals, we’re also human, and the human element is sometimes very hard to get past.
There are times when I’m called in to identify skeletal remains; difficult in itself, but not nearly as insurmountable as identifying a 5 year old child who has been fatally burned in a house fire, or a drowning victim whose body has been in the water for eight hot, summer afternoons.
For 38 years, I’ve maintained a private dental practice. I enjoy talking with patients I see every day. I enjoy sharing stories with them, building relationships and even friendships; talking about their kids and laughing with them. And when it’s time to go home, I become a husband, a father and a grandfather…. Until the phone rings at 3:00am. That telephone ringing at 3:00am is truly the most deafening sound I have ever heard.
When that call comes in, I know that somewhere, a father, a mother, or child has been killed. When an identification is necessary, I can’t help but wonder, as I look at the dental records, if that person was talking with his or her dentist, or laughing with them at the time those records were taken. We are human. So human.
In life, when we lose a loved one, we have the memories of our time with them. The memories of their smiles and laughter, their touch and their warmth. We carry those memories with us and keep them sacred. There is joy in those memories. Joy and love and a lifetime of feeling. But as a medical examiner, homicide detective, EMT or firefighter, we don’t have the benefit of that lifetime of memories. We have only the memory of a victim’s death, and those are the memories we want to forget, but we cannot. We are human.