Tuesday, April 19, 2011

I See Dead People

This week my consular training is all about American citizen services - what we at the embassy can and cannot do for Americans who find themselves in dire straits of one sort or another while overseas. Yesterday was mostly about arrests, complete with simulated prison visits. Today the focus was death. This morning we practiced calling people to notify them of a loved one's death abroad, something I sincerely hope I'll never have to do in real life, and this afternoon we visited the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

In death cases one of the duties of a consular officer is to go down to the morgue to identify the remains and take temporary possession of the deceased's effects. The State Department has wisely concluded that it's probably best if that first case at post is not our first experience with death in the flesh, so they take us on a little field trip. After a very informative PowerPoint and a video of an external autopsy we all went down to the mortuary to have a look at a corpse. It was a privilege to be there; in D.C. even the families of the deceased are not allowed in the mortuary and identify the body via Polaroid.

This may have been the first dead body I've ever seen - my family members are generally pretty long-lived and tend to favor cremation. The D.C. medical examiners run a tight ship so the gentleman in question looked almost like he was just sleeping even after a week and a half, though perhaps a bit waxy. Somehow I imagine the facilities in Conakry will be somewhat less sophisticated and the remains more seriously decomposed than today's exemplar, but it was a useful experience nonetheless. Kind of like going to the Holocaust museum - certainly educational, if not terribly cheerful.

Death smells like chemical fertilizer.

1 comment:

  1. I can't believe no one has told me about this part of ConGen. Wow. It sounds like a sobering experience.