I'm very comfortable around death.
It wasn't always the case. My ease with all things decomposing hit me like an epiphany. No gradual desensitisation, no video games warping my view on the world, no hard core, ultra-violent B-movies, not even a hint of psychopathy. Just taking the opportunity to earn twenty quid, cash in hand.
It happened when my children were still young, the youngest being a new born, and I was working as a self employed builder. Married, with a nice house and a half decent van, a big back garden and a dog, I worked as hard as I could to provide.
The building game can be quite seasonal and so, once the nights had drawn in and people were saving for Christmas rather than shelling out to have a kitchen wall knocked through or a Velux window installed I took on an extra job working for our friendly, local funeral director, a man that bore an uncanny resemblance to Peter Griffin of "Family Guy" fame, driving his hearse. It was a doddle of a job and I could easily arrange the week's building work around whichever jobs he had for me.
I always had plenty of notice, an emergency burial is not only rare but tends to require a van and a shovel rather than a modified vintage Daimler and a chap in a nice hat.
One afternoon, whilst crawling around under a floor in Eccles with a torch in my gob, my mobile phone rang. This was at a time when to call a mobile phone required a bloody good reason given the disgracefully high cost and so I was sure it was important. I broke off from stabbing at joist ends with a screwdriver and took the call.
It was the undertaker, Peter Griffin, in a mad panic and wanting to know if I could do an emergency job for him. I told him I was a little busy, imagining he'd probably be better served enlisting the help of Winston Wolf, and asked if it was life or death.
"Death." Came the reply. He was a sarcastic bastard.
I eventually agreed to help. The job, he explained, was driving his private ambulance. A chap had died in hospital and his remains needed collecting from the mortuary and taking to the rest home for Peter to weave his magic and do all those things that you and I really don't want to. The guy he normally employed to undertake such undertakings, an octogenarian with a dicky heart and diabetes, had been taken ill. An octogenarian with a dicky heart taking ill was generally something that was guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of our jovial, local funeral director, but this particular occurrence had occurred at a very inopportune moment.
Twenty quid, cash in hand, a half an hour of my time and I didn't even need to wear my nice hat or have a shave, I scrambled out from beneath the floorboards, told the lady of the house I was off to the builder's merchants and went to acquire a new line for the work experience section of my CV.
I'd never been back stage at a hospital before, only ever having seen a mortuary on the television screen, so I wasn't sure what to expect. As it turns out, the television people have nailed it. Shiny, steel handles on little doors, cadavers on sliding mechanisms within, steel trolleys and echoing footfalls. the only thing I experienced as I approached the drawer in which our gentleman lay that I hadn't experienced through the medium of Starsky and Hutch or Silent Witness was the smell. Not a bad smell, not a nice smell. Just a smell.
I'd been a little nervous in the run up to the big reveal but I needn't have been. The mortuary assistant opened the drawer and slid out the contents with a swish. The body that glided out in front of me was wrapped from head to toe in a crisp, white sheet that bore the blue stripes and logo of the NHS upon it. I stood by the feet of the deceased and prepared to help my colleague lift him across onto the gurney we'd brought along with us. I wasn't going to have to touch dead flesh or even gaze upon it, a piece of piss. I took a deep breath and grasped the ankles.
"Hang on," the mortuary assistant called out, "I just need to take this...", He unwrapped the body before me, reclaiming the hospital's property, smiled and walked away.
And there it was, with only a hospital gown to barely cover it's dignity, the first dead human I'd ever seen. I'd seen them on the television, real dead bodies, lined up next to mass graves or lying in a street in Soweto, but those real dead bodies weren't real real dead bodies. They were pixels, an illusion, a series of little lights magically blended together by the sorcery that lay within the cathode ray tube in my lounge. Just a picture, not a person. This was a person. A person who'd clearly not looked after his gnarled and discoloured feet, those being the only thing I could focus on.
The flesh was cold beneath my fingers. Not the kind of cold that shocks you when your significant other puts the soles of his or her feet on your arse in the night, the flesh wasn't giving off cold, it was just not giving off any heat. After a slight delay whilst my opposite number at the other end of the drawer manipulated the dead man's arms into position, rigor mortis having already begun to creep through the newly decaying flesh, we lifted.
The body was an inch or two off the bed when the epiphany struck. I suppose it was a form of very severe aversion therapy. Where, moments earlier, I'd been scared of the dead now, with a pair of cold, lifeless ankles in my hands, I realised there was nothing to be afraid of. It was a dead body, no longer a person. I had never met the man in my life, would never know anything more about him than was written on the paperwork I carried and would never hear of him again. He mattered to someone, but not to me. Not now he was dead.
I went on to do many more of these little cash in hand jobs. That first was the most pleasant. On occasion I would have to remove a body from a home rather than a hospital, sometimes having died weeks earlier without anyone noticing and in a really rather unpleasant state. Once, I removed the remains of an unfortunate schizophrenic who had attempted to remove both his hands with a guillotine and had completed seventy-five percent of the task before the loss of blood resulting from the transfer of blood from within his exposed veins to the walls and ceiling had taken their devastating toll on him. Each job was different, but the cargo was always the same. Just dead bodies, not people. If I'd thought of them as people I couldn't have coped.
I couldn't have coped, because I'd have cared too much.
Bodies, corpses, cadavers, the deceased or the departed. To their loved ones they were people, to those that have to do what their loved ones could never bring themselves to do they were not. It sounds cold, it sounds awful, but those people that do those things can only do those things if they de-humanise our fathers and grandmothers to some extent. The remains of our dearly departed are treated with reverence and respect whilst in the care of these vital members of our society, but the respect is as much for the feelings, love and loss of those he or she left behind as for the fleshy bag of bones and organs that need to be "processed".
This week, Katie Hopkins has been in the news. She scribbled some of her usual brand of odious venom down and caused an outrage which led me to read her bile, if only because I couldn't believe it if I didn't read it for myself. I'm putting no links to her work, that would make me feel dirty, but I'm sure that if you haven't already heard what she said then you won't struggle to find it online.
Her words came just before a further nine hundred people died when the ship they were fleeing Africa on capsized. Many were trapped below decks, the last moments of their lives filled with the thing they were fleeing, terror. Men, women and children, nurses, bookkeepers, teachers, baristas, IT consultants, petty thieves, saints and sinners. People. People so scared of where they were that they fled, they attempted to reach the safety, security and affluence of Europe. So scared that they took a gamble with their own lives, the hope of the ultimate prize, an ordinary life again, a life similar to the one they once had before the bad times came, was a hope potent enough to make the risk worth taking.
Hell, Heaven or death, pick two.
She'd asked to be shown pictures of coffins, bodies floating in the water and skinny people looking sad and claimed that even this wouldn't move her. Then, presumably by the hand of some really fucked up Genie, her request was granted. She'd advocated the use of gunships to turn back the boats that carried them and referred to them as "cockroaches". De-humanising the victims, the real life people that, like you, never dreamt their lives would end in such a way. Regarding them as vermin so that she could bring herself to offer her vile opinions. Opinions she must, on some level, know are vile.
The newspapers and the television have paraded the images she claims won't move her before our eyes. Coffins, bodies, glum looking skinny people, a string of real dead bodies that aren't real real dead bodies, just a visual representation of the real real dead bodies that really lay somewhere other than here and are really dead.
The nine hundred that really died were migrants, as has been repeatedly mentioned throughout these news reports, who perished in a desperate bid to flee their homeland and escape to the relative safety of Europe. "Migrant" is a fitting description of what they were, in the same way as when you're behind the wheel of your car you're a motorist or whilst your in Asda you're a shopper or maybe a shoplifter. It describes what you were doing at a short period in your life, it doesn't describe you. You may have a lovely car or a fridge full of fine cooked meats, but there's a damn sight more to you than that. You're beautiful, or at least passable. You're kind, thoughtful, protective of your loved ones. You support that football team you support and your favourite colour is the colour of your first ever curtains in your first ever bedroom. You're you, a person. If you drop down dead whilst pushing a trolley down the ready meals aisle in Asda you'll be described in the local rag as a shopper. If you survive the self service tills and make it back to your car in one piece only to die in a fireball on the way home then you'll be reported as a motorist. Killed in a bus collision you'll be either a passenger or an unfortunate pedestrian. That's what the nice man that can do what your loved ones won't will know you as. You won't be someone's father or daughter or the lollipop lady that lives over the wool shop, to them you'll be a cancer sufferer, the suicide victim or that bloke that had died, turned black and swelled up in his armchair because no one noticed he was missing all through July and August.
Only to our loved ones will we still be a person, which is why our loved ones hurt when we're gone. They don't miss a motorist, they miss a mother. A real, tangible person with a real, hard, eventful existence, a person that lived, loved and was loved. Not perfect, not special, just loved. Just like you.
The press report the people that drowned as nine hundred migrants because that's the easiest way to describe what they were and to explain why they were there. It saves ink and column inches, freeing up space for stories about terrorists and advertisements. It would be ridiculous to expect a journalist to write "seventy nurses, two hundred and eighty eight schoolchildren, forty seven gardeners, ninety five waiters, thirty two retired police officers, forty eight babies, seventy seven musicians, twenty nine doctors, nineteen joiners, three baristas, ninety six stay at home wives, fifty eight fishermen, thirty seven taxi drivers and a pheasant plucker", especially given that would be almost certainly wholly inaccurate, so in that medium maybe there's an acceptable excuse for using such dehumanising language.
But dehumanising those unfortunate human beings that are dying every day for the sake of brevity and doing so to allow us to vent our spleens in such a disrespectful and uncaring manner in order to attain infamy, column inches and notoriety are two very different motives. Those that partake of the latter, those that think of and describe fellow human beings as less than themselves, those without the intelligence to see that it's not beyond the realms of possibility they too may one day be faced with the choice of Hell, Heaven or death through no fault of their own, those people should be reminded that it is they, not the migrant, that is a cockroach, spreading the filth and disease that passes for their opinion all around them. And when finally they accept they've no more right to life than a skinny, sad person in a boat and their humanity has been restored, they should be welcomed back into the fold with much celebration. Balloons, party poppers, maybe even a DJ. Hold a street party, put on a spread and rejoice or turn your hats backwards, buy some whistles and have a rave. Whatever floats your boat.
Can you imagine how much more pleasant the world would be if Katie Hopkins repented her ways and became a nicer person?
Or even if she were just a bit quieter.
Of course, it's important to have the details when deciding on a course of action and to give detail when reporting on a catastrophe. It's up to us, as readers of those facts or deciders of those decisions, to empathise with those involved, to read beyond the facts and to try and feel what the victims feel, or felt in those last terrible moments. To remember that those migrants, in days long before they migrated, once perched upon a parent's knee and giggled and put the cold soles of their feet on their partner's arse in the night. Those feet that they'd probably not have looked after if they'd lived longer.
And to not get too comfortable around death...
...unless you're just taking the opportunity to earn twenty quid, cash in hand.