It was just after 4 a.m. when Ronald, the night clerk at the Peterborough Apartments, decided it was time for a cigarette break. Pulling smoke into his lungs, he caught sight of something sprawled on the front patio. Ronald squinted into the dark; the outline seemed almost human. He shuffled over to inspect further.
The bars in St. Petersburg, Florida can legally remain open until 3 a.m. It was the morning of April 2, 2014, and the leftover April Fools’ Day rabble had been spat into the world only an hour earlier. Some drunk guy must have thought it would be hilarious to pay a visit to the apartment building to toss out a mannequin, along with some splattered red paint (meant to look like blood). Considering this was a complex for elderly residents, a pretty sick prank. Shaking his head, Ronald tossed his cigarette and headed back inside to finish out his shift.
Two hours later, a woman and her teenage son arrived to deliver the morning papers. “Before you leave,” Ronald asked the boy, “come help me move this.” Bending down, they saw the rubber face poking out from under a shock of white hair. It looked like a bad Halloween mask. In the dawn light it wasn’t the most convincing mannequin. Ronald grabbed the feet, the boy grabbed a clump of the clothes, and together they carried it across the parking lot to a standard issue beige dumpster. Lifting the lid, they tossed the mannequin in, ending the ghoulish prank before any of the residents woke up. Ronald finished his shift and went home.
Later that morning Ronald received a phone call at home: “You’ve got to get back here right away.” When he arrived back at the complex, his employers told him that earlier that morning, he had thrown away a dead human body.
Sometime in the night before, a 96-year-old woman sat down to write a last note. Originally from England, she had lived in the Peterborough Apartments for twenty years. Described by her friends as “refined” woman, she placed a stool next to her window, climbed up and slipped out into the night air, falling 16 stories to her death.
Reaction was swift. The police believed Ronald’s story and no charges were filed, but the apartment building, where he had worked for nine years, fired him. Public opinion oscillated between a chorus of outrage (“That sociopath dumped an old woman in the dumpster and gets to walk away? Sickening!”) and bemusement over another entry for the notorious “Florida man…” genre of news reporting. (Recent headlines include: “Florida man tries to walk out of Walmart with 6.5 lbs of cow tongue stuffed down his pants” and “Florida man who was once arrested for fighting a drag queen while dressed as a KKK member now running for mayor.”)
In the midst of the reactions, one stunning truth was ignored. Ronald threw away a dead body not out of cruelty or recklessness, but because he had no idea what he was looking at. And he was not alone in his misidentification of the woman’s body. The teenage paperboy didn’t know what he was looking at, either. Neither did his mother. Neither did the other apartment complex employee to whom Roland showed the “mannequin.” They lacked familiarity with the singular traits of a dead body: the cold skin, the blank, absent expressions. By the time they brought the body to the dumpster, rigor mortis had taken hold (stiffening her limbs and rendering her mannequin-like). One by one the group gazed down at the woman and saw only a cheap Halloween decoration.
Are you familiar with The Last Unicorn?
(This seems like a non sequitur, but stay with me.)
If you haven’t, don’t let the title fool you, the plot was deceptively dark—as all the best children’s stories are. Our protagonist, a unicorn, hears a passing hunter’s claim that she is the last of her kind. Unwilling to believe this is true, she leaves her forest on a quest to find others like her. It is a dangerous trip across the countryside, but she is able to travel incognito, going unnoticed, because men do not recognize her mythical status. A quite literal wondrous magical creature stands before them, but it has been too long since a human has seen a unicorn. By default they assume she is nothing but an old white horse.
It would be irresponsible for me to use Ronald’s bizarre mishap to claim there is a larger problem in the way our culture hides the dead, refusing to see death as it truly is. Except that two months later—it happened again.
In Spring Hill, Florida, only 60 miles away from the Peterborough Apartments, two men were hired to clean out a vacant house. To begin work on the garage, they had to push through trash, clothing, empty boxes, and dead rodents. Looking up, they discovered that the former tenant had left an angry warning to the property owners: a mannequin hanging from the ceiling.
Both men decided: yes, this is absolutely a mannequin. The former occupant had issues with the owners, and this threatening prank seemed like something he would have done. So they cut the mannequin down, piled it into their pickup truck with a load of trash from the garage, and drove it to a solid waste landfill nearby.
When they arrived at the landfill, the employees took note of that peculiar item of cargo. Unwilling to let it go, the employees called the sheriff’s department after the men drove away.
You’ve already guessed how this story ends. It was not a prank; it was not a mannequin. It was the body of the 33-year-old former occupant of the property who had died by suicide.
How could this happen twice in the span of two years? The answer lies in our strained, often non-existent relationship to the dead body. In the Western world, Halloween mannequins are more of a reality than a real dead body. The misidentification of a corpse by civilians is not a surprising outcome, it is the only outcome.
We can spread blame for this state of affairs until the cows (or unicorns) come home: the funeral industry, horror films, the media, the public’s desire to avoid hard emotional encounters. But to begin to fix the problem, we must start by allowing families who want change have access to that change.
Now that I own a funeral home, it is my constant refrain that it is “safe and legal, safe and legal, safe and legal” to be around your own dead. I opened my latest book with the story of a daughter who wanted to keep her mother at home after she died. The hospice nurse, well intentioned though she may have been, erroneously told the daughter that to do this would be illegal, that the funeral home had to come take away the body immediately. The daughter feared that something she desperately wanted for her own healing was morbid and wrong.
Meeting our dead, in their natural state, is something Americans practiced for hundreds of years before the rise of the modern funeral industry (and the chemical preservation and makeup that came with it). Anyone who has cared for their own dead knows it is a simple transition back to that time past. Our dead have almost magic powers—an outsized, powerful, and unexpectedly profound effect on the grieving individual. Even if we fear them, we must see them for what they are—treasure, not trash.