This story is published in collaboration with CrimeReads.
I’ve seen an alcoholic who fell down the stairs, wasn’t found for two weeks, and only because the flies became so thick at the windows, his mailman became alarmed. He lived alone because his wife had fled his abuse. When I left the scene, I passed her crying on the driveway, which surprised me.
I’ve seen a homeless man who died where he lived–beneath a supermarket loading dock. I wriggled into the claustrophobic space to photograph his body lying atop a mattress beside his possessions: a lighter, extra socks, wallet, and book. I don’t remember the book’s title, but I wish I did.
I’ve stood in mass graves beside the remains of thousands of men and boys killed during the Bosnian War. And I’ve seen the families of those men watch silently from the sidelines while I untangled their relatives from an ocean of death and dirt.
I’ve seen the skeletal remains of indigenous peoples hidden away in dusty drawers in our country’s most prestigious museums, and I’ve seen the demands for their return from their living descendants.
I’ve seen a teenage girl’s body as she lay in the morgue. She was beautiful and perfect—except for one narrow defect, a stab wound under her ribs, that ended her future.
Twice, I’ve seen a young man, who appeared privileged with every opportunity, hang himself in the woods behind his parents’ home. Neither left a note.
I’ve seen a healthy twenty-year-old man who died in his sleep, earbuds still in place, and the shocked grief of his mother who found him.
I’ve seen the bodies of a toddler and her mother, shot by the estranged father as they bundled into the car one early weekday morning.
I’ve seen an otherwise healthy middle-aged woman after she died of HIV-related complications—surprising even her doctor.
I’ve seen the body of a woman who threatened her neighbors with a samurai sword and ended up mortally wounding only herself.
I’ve seen many bodies generously donated to science—it might surprise you that the reality rarely resembled the image implied.
I’ve seen people kill themselves with tall buildings, subway tracks, rivers, shotguns, pills, and plastic bags.
I’ve seen an elected official who died of heart failure during a vigorous morning of anonymous sex play.
I’ve noticed many people die without wearing pants.
I have seen way too many overdoses.
By now, I’ve seen your death. And I’ve probably seen mine.
This is what I know.
Working around death changes you, but not how you’d expect. I’m not traumatized. I’m not. I don’t think so. Am I? Would I know? What if I’m forever broken by witnessing nightmares manifested in real life, day after day? (There’s also the humbling consideration that I chose this work because I was broken from the start.) Regardless, on the surface, I appear unscathed. After all, I’d emerge from a grisly homicide scene preoccupied only with what I needed to pick up for dinner.
I remember a crime scene so violent; we used a chair to reach the skull fragments embedded in the ceiling—the result of a shotgun murder-suicide. A new girl in our unit quit that day. “I just don’t want to be OK with this stuff,” she told me later. She returned to bartending and seemed happy. I, however, was scandalized—why wouldn’t you want to be OK with this ‘stuff’? I considered my nonchalance around humanity’s dark side one of my few exquisite talents. After we left the crime scene, I peeled off my final pair of latex gloves of the day and checked my reflection in my Sheriff van’s rear-view mirror. Could I pass for a regular person, I wondered. Would the other grocery store customers—civilians—see a woman running an innocent errand on the way home from work? Or would they notice the fingerprint powder smears, the metallic smell of blood clinging to my pores, and a shadow behind my eyes? The images of skull fragments wedged in drywall were simply and effortlessly filed away. There they’d stay to be accessed later when I wrote a report, processed evidence, or testified in court.
The cumulative effect of these surreal experiences was more subtle. The little things—the details—wormed their way into my psyche, gnawing at any frayed edges days and years later. Noticing the freshly painted blue nails on the fingers of a young woman at autopsy. She had taken a hefty dose of synthetic bath salts, a drug that can be purchased at the counter of a convenience store, before being found drowned in the pond at her apartment complex: her keys, shoes, and phone were carefully left piled at the water’s edge. Or removing the shoes from the body of a 14-year-old Bosnian boy killed during the Balkan War in the 1990s. His sneakers were a brand I recognized, the same style I might see in my brother’s closet. Did this boy know this would be the last time he tied his shoes? Somehow, a tidy shoelace bow seemed like an act of optimism, so he probably didn’t.
I know you’d expect an atmosphere of somber reverence to surround working with the dead. You’d probably be wrong. The first dead body I acquainted myself with resided in the chilly basement of the University College London hospital. I was a 22-year-old graduate student of Forensic Archaeological Science—a niche forensic discipline applying the scientific rigor of archaeology to crime scene work. As these were the first dead bodies outside of an open-casket funeral I’d seen, I half-expected a procession of gurneys wrapped in pristine white sheets as organ music played. Then, we’d soberly assemble around them in something resembling a group prayer, poised to do scientific work. Meaningful work.
I didn’t expect grim rows of industrial steel cabinets and containers, each filled with its own horrific scenario: headless torsos, a selection of arms all amputated at the shoulder joint, a basket of feet, some still wearing toenail polish from their owner’s last pedicure. I stood over one grim trunk filled with disembodied heads, taking my time in selecting which featured the most appealing eyes for me to inspect. My face must have betrayed my surprise because an assisting doctor leaned over and whispered, “Years ago, before the administration cracked down, medical students used to set up plastic bottles in the hallway and practice bowling with the heads.” I nodded with a half-smile, unsure if he was teasing me.
Working with the dead with detached nonchalance may seem like a sociopathic superpower. But once you’ve been confronted with death’s reality, it’s quite easy to coexist in its presence. After all, they are dead, while I am still living with my alive-person problems: What’s for lunch? Why won’t that guy return my calls? How will I gracefully get this 300 lbs. cadaver back into his body bag?
Years later, the mass graves, autopsies, homicides, shell casings, blood splatter, bone fragments, and evidence bags run together in my memory. I’m forced to rely on notes and photographs to piece the exact circumstances together. But nail polish in robin-egg blue and neatly tied Adidas sneakers have stayed with me, reminding me that this was a person who didn’t expect to die that day. But they did.
I chose this career because of the uneasy feeling I should do something significant with my life—something with meaning. (It wouldn’t occur to me for decades that meaning could exist outside my professional identity.) I didn’t have the confidence for medicine or the patience for law school, and what could be nobler than dedicating one’s life to advocate for the voiceless—the dead?
After fifteen years of working for multiple agencies, several graduate degrees, and documenting thousands of human remains, I report that the work did feel important. Being surrounded by death never caused me stress or fear. Not from the bodies themselves, anyway. Instead, I felt relieved for the victims when I reached them. Their death was over by 30 minutes or 300 years, and I couldn’t change that (and to work among the dead is the ultimate lesson in learning to accept What Is). But it was in my power to do my best for them, whether collecting evidence to help secure justice for their murder, finally finding the name and family of the unidentified, or simply handling their body respectfully. I understood that not everyone could or would want to witness the violence and sadness every day, but I could, with what I believed to be of little negative impact on my soul. This would be my contribution to the world.
Ten years after the Balkan War ended, I stood in a mortuary in Tuzla, Bosnia. I had just pulled two mesh bags of bones from their storage location. The bags contained the skeletal remains of two brothers identified by their DNA. It had matched their third brother, the one that had survived the war. He waited for me in the hallway of the mortuary. I placed the skeletons on the exam table. I ushered the surviving brother inside and watched quietly from the corner. He stood before his brothers, rested his hands on their bones, and lowered his head. His face betrayed no emotion. I yearned to do more for him, the dead, the missing, and Bosnia. Now, I realize that while my job helped make that moment possible for the brothers and the thousands like them, my most important role was as a witness. I’m the one who carried this moment from that mortuary in Bosnia, delivering it to you, now.
I know that even if I valued the work, it didn’t mean everyone else would treat the job or myself as important. Like the plight of public school teachers, forensic roles are often filled by underpaid county employees. I frequently paid for supplies out of my pocket. Budgets, bureaucracy, and politics meant promotions were unreliable, and the work environment was often toxic. But unlike teaching, a career in law enforcement is perceived as a political statement, even if my role was to dust for fingerprints and photograph victim injuries. I neither carried a gun nor arrested people, but I wore the uniform and drove a marked police vehicle, which meant I was in that club as far as the general public was concerned. At Starbucks, while in uniform, I’d feel a hearty clap on the back as a middle-aged white man congratulated me on my service, complained about the new speed cameras, and then insisted on buying my vanilla latte. But in lower-income or minority neighborhoods, as I talked to witnesses at a scene, I’d sense fear and disdain for what my uniform represented. I’d try to communicate with my eyes, “I’m not like that; I’m here to help you,” and “I’m a Democrat.”
Former border patrol agent Francisco Cantu, in his memoir, The Line Becomes a River, is lectured by his mother: “You can’t exist within a system for that long without being implicated, without absorbing its poison,” an observation with which I reluctantly agree. I was present countless times when a colleague’s demeaning comment about a victim or off-color joke about a minority group garnered laughs, and I’d said nothing. And I’d be lying if I claimed that none of my uber-liberal views hadn’t wobbled after first-hand exposure to the tragedies of gun violence and drugs in our communities.
I know it’s easy to paint law enforcement with one broad brush as biased, power-hungry brutes with badges. Those officers did exist. As did the thoughtful, intelligent, and often hilarious—diverse as any other professional industry. They fought to operate within the outdated structure of a paramilitary organization with the bit of autonomy they were allowed, as I did. They cared about their families: frequently bringing pictures of the latest Disney trip or diligently collecting fundraising dollars for their daughter’s Girl Scout Troop. I know that working for an American police department is what you make of it. Some sign up for the pension, others for the guns and car chases. Some officers are sincerely driven to help people, whereas others crave the feeling of speaking while someone must listen.
Access into America’s hidden corners proved endlessly fascinating. A search warrant would bring me to a single mother’s home in a low-income apartment. Her 14-year-old son was arrested and charged with possessing a firearm suspected of being used in a recent shooting. A detective spoke to the mother on the lawn outside her home with genuine compassion and concern. Inside, a SWOT officer gleefully emptied bags of rice, spilling their contents (and, I feared, a significant portion of the woman’s grocery budget) on her kitchen floor.
I took photos of her son’s humble bedroom. The closet contained rows of immaculately kept sneakers, yet little else. His dresser kept his school notebooks and an optimistic stash of condoms. Across the room, I observed a twin-sized bed with a mess of tangled sheets. I flipped through a notebook on the desk. There, I found several pieces of jail mail so steeped in slang and swagger it was nearly incomprehensible to my 35-year-old White woman brain. But on a notebook page tucked behind the macho correspondence, I uncovered a list. Carefully numbered, the list began: 1) Mom–scented candle from The Body Shop.
The shopping list continued with the names of other relatives and friends. Alongside the names, he printed items he planned to surprise them with for Christmas, only a few weeks away. The arrestee’s list of carefully considered tokens of love exemplified the privilege of working in law enforcement—bearing witness to the humanity woven amongst the broken shards of bad decisions, desperation, addiction, and despair. Across town, another list might have existed—in a mother’s handwriting: things to get done for her son’s funeral, the young man killed with that gun.
I know that the greatest insights from working in death and crime scene investigations come from witnessing the interior lives of the rich and poor, Black and White, urban and rural, young and old, sworn and civilian. What always struck me was not our differences but our similarities. It’s uncanny that our junk drawers always contain the same lists, takeaway menus, business cards, and spare batteries. Family photos decorate every living room wall. And our kitchen pantries always have the same box of Triscuits. When confronted with the expected loss of a loved one, it didn’t matter if I was responding to a mobile home without running water or a new McMansion with a pool; the grief was the same, as was the support and love shared by the friends and family that remain.
I know you’re not as alone or beyond repair as you think. The hidden scale of depression, suicide, and drug overdoses in our communities is shocking. I attended suicides and overdoses in every type of home and neighborhood—from gated communities to a homeless encampment in the woods. Some left notes: she was lonely; he was ashamed; she couldn’t take it anymore, and he couldn’t beat his addiction.
One evening in late January, I responded to the type of neighborhood that exemplifies the American dream: well-kept, two-story homes with backyards in a gated community. A couple in their 60s lived in one still decorated for the holidays. Christmas cards cheerfully cluttered the mantle—proof that this home’s occupants were connected to their community and well-loved. The house was also the scene of an attempted murder-suicide. The shooter called her daughter, claiming to have just shot her husband. She then shot herself. The woman didn’t survive, but her elderly husband did. When emergency personnel arrived, they found her frail husband suffering a gunshot to his chest. He had dragged himself into the kitchen, where he pounded on the lower cabinets hoping to attract the attention of a neighbor. In poor health, he’d only returned home from hospice care a few weeks prior. His return had overwhelmed his wife. She couldn’t bear the weight of caring for them both.
I collected the gun lying by her side on the living room floor. The old-fashioned pistol didn’t look capable of wreaking the havoc it had. Before she resorted to this final act, why didn’t she reach out to one of the senders of the Christmas cards? She didn’t leave a note.
Emergency responders are not immune to mental health issues either: substance abuse and suicide rates are one of law enforcement’s dirty secrets. My drinking eventually caused me enough concern that I left the field entirely.
“How much wine do I have at home?” was my first thought at the end of every shift.
It’s not that I needed the wine to function—I needed it to not function—to turn off—shut down—pass out. The goal every night was insta-sleep. Lying in bed with the demands of my anxious brain was more terrifying than burned or bloated bodies. I was drinking a bottle of wine (at least) most nights and had been for years. If it had ever been fun, those days were long over. The habit equivocated a second dead-end job I needed to drag around. I began getting increasingly nervous that I was on borrowed time before something devastating happened. Imaginary scenarios of me wrecking my car, being diagnosed with liver failure, or being exposed as a failure plagued me daily. My denial had to work especially hard when I’d respond to someone’s death scene after they’d just killed themselves by wrecking their car or succumbing to their addictions.
I wish I knew then what I know now—that what we fear isn’t always what we should fear. I feared failure. Starting over. Lying in bed with my thoughts and facing life without the fortification of a bottle of wine. I was scared I couldn’t change and that I wouldn’t change in time. I feared being too late. I feared the consequences of living.
One Monday afternoon, while parking my car in my driveway after a long day of police, grieving families, and picking up a bottle of wine, a thought appeared: in less than four years, I’d turn 40—what if nothing had changed? Coasting along for four more years seemed not only horrifying but entirely plausible.
That next day, I quit drinking—and it stuck. My ego, which had long demanded more experience, more impressive jobs, and more money, finally stepped in—acknowledging that a future as a 40-year-old with a drinking problem making $80 a dead body with no benefits was possibly a fate worse than death.
I recognized it was unlikely I’d remain on the righteous path while investigating deaths several days a week, so I quit that too. Now untethered from these two anchors of doom that had defined my life for nearly 15 years, I wondered if I might fade away, ceasing to exist at all.
I told my supervisor at the Medical Examiner’s Office that I’d be leaving my post. “What will you do instead?” she wondered.
“I want to try writing,” I said in an unpracticed voice.
“What will you write about?”
I had no idea.
The husband and I moved from Maryland to Virginia, perfect timing for my reinvention. “I can’t believe you quit drinking just before we moved to wine country,” he frowned, evidence of how well I’d hid my misery.
A few months into my new lifestyle, I saw a job posting for a Cadaver Lab Manager in Northern Virginia. I emailed my resume over and was immediately invited for an interview. A professional relapse. I met with the Lab Directors—a married couple, he a doctor, and she, the lab administrator. I recognized her accent. She was from Bosnia and had fled the region during the Balkan Wars. While we traded memories of Sarajevo, I thought, I will get this job.
The laboratory was a medical training facility that used human cadavers to train doctors on new surgical techniques. They invited me to return that Saturday morning to shadow the current manager to ensure this would be a good fit.
“You’re going to work a Saturday morning for free,” my husband observed, not hiding his exasperation. “And if you get this job, you’ll work every Saturday morning?”
That Saturday, I arrived at the lab by 7 am. I assisted the technicians in pulling the medical specimens out of the refrigerators. The scheduled surgical training that day was focused on the spine, so the cadavers were merely torsos—anonymous, limbless rectangles of human meat. I was instantly returned to the University College London basement morgue and its baskets of feet from decades prior. How ironic, I thought. Maybe this is a sign, I thought.
The work wasn’t terrible—I’d learn plenty about medical research and human anatomy. At the end of our day, while repackaging the headless torsos, the manager I’d be replacing asked me what I thought.
“Can you tell me more about the compensation and benefits?” I asked.
“I’m earning an hourly salary,” he explained. “There are currently no benefits.”
“In that case, I’d need about $40 an hour,” I declared, confident that a managerial position within a profitable medical facility in a major city, even without benefits, warranted a professional rate.
His eyes widened. “I doubt they’ll go for that, but you can try.”
I didn’t bother trying to negotiate—the position reeked of disrespect and zero opportunities—a stench I’d finally recognized. I turned down the job, but the decision hadn’t come easy. I felt reckless. I’d never turned down a professional opportunity before. I fretted I might never work again—what if I’d passed on my only chance for success? Of course, such worry is absurd.
I should know better than anyone that if I’m still breathing, then it’s not too late. The opportunity for success was right in front of me the entire time–my mistake was limiting the definition of it. I’d pinned my self-worth and happiness on a narrow image of myself in a specific career. My insecurity in my abilities, my fear of failing at something else, had locked me into tunnel vision. For an investigator and scientist, professions which depend on asking questions, and considering alternatives, I’d failed to apply the same curiosity to my own life. What would happen if I tried something else?—is the question I never asked.
Luckily, second, third, fourth, and fifty-sixth chances abound with every tomorrow. It was a tomorrow when I quit drinking. It was a tomorrow when I left my job and my career and started writing. In the middle of the COVID tomorrows, I packed up and moved with my husband and our squad of rescue dogs to Costa Rica, where I sit typing this now. After several hundred tomorrows, I stood in front of an audience and read an essay I wrote about a young man’s suicide. It won an award. It won several. One tomorrow, my tiredness was diagnosed as chronic Lyme Disease. On another, I learned I needed a hysterectomy to combat the rapidly growing tumors in my womb. Tomorrows keep coming, and the older I get, the faster they seem to arrive. Tomorrow, I could wake up dead.
I have a confession. I never think about my death. Not the cause nor the administrative details. I haven’t decided on cremation or natural burial or written my will. I worry about what will become of my beloved dogs if I pass in a tragic car accident, but I have made no plans. I try to live so I won’t soon run out of tomorrows. And that means that addictions are managed. Toxic people are avoided. Doctor appointments are kept. Vacations are to be taken. Money is saved. Plans are made. This is progress. Once, I did none of these things, and mocked those who did. But now I know, no matter if we’re broken or healing, tomorrow arrives. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll wonder what my death will look like. I’ll pick out a sunny spot on our Costa Rican jungle, a peaceful place overlooking the waves, where I can hear the toucans chatter. Tomorrow, I’ll tell my husband, sister, and lawyer, “Here. This will be fine. You can bury me here.”
Claire O’Brien spent 15 years as a human identification expert, holding positions at the International Commission on Missing Persons (Bosnia) and the Smithsonian, among others. In 2017, she retired her forensic gear to write. Claire’s creative writing has received numerous awards, including a nomination for a Pushcart Prize, first prize in the ASJA’s Annual Writing Awards in the Personal Essay category, and the grand prize of the Hippocampus Creative Nonfiction 2020 contest. She lives in Costa Rica with her husband and six rescue dogs, where she is working on her first book.