The Stench of Death

2006 by Lin Stone

If ever you must think of death, to write about it, or simply
to plan against it, use the feelings evoked below to fill your
stories with truth. 

Your only likely brush with death has been in a hospital where leaking body fluids are immediately contained and quickly flushed away.  The floors are scrubbed with disinfectant.  The plastic coated mattresses are washed.   Air conditioning runs night and day to drag out the first stench of death and disease. 

Little wonder you would have no knowledge of how death smells in our isolated world today.  We (today) don't even smell rotten tomatoes very often.  Your station in life probably insulates you so far that you can't even remember the rank smell of an outdoor toilet as it began creeping too full.  You have probably never chanced upon the mortal remains of a dead cow sacrificed so that a tender rump roast might grace your plate.  Little wonder then you cannot imagine a smell that smolders on still and magnifies in the eddies of air.  Nonetheless, it is so -- and it is only natural that it is so.  Death is not always violent; take care that you don't limit the deaths you write about to a single response.

When sheep are slaughtered for mutton, the shepherd make the sheep lie down on its side and they cover its eyes. The sheep lies there without struggling, and the shepherd takes a sharp knife and draws a single, neat line across the sheep's throat. The sheep jerks in a sharp twist of surprise, while the shepherd holds it gently down. It smells blood and stirs more anxiously. Then the animal quiets again under the shepherd's hand. It bleeds.

Before the end, the sheep might twitch and jerk another time or two, but it's silent, and it doesn't really make an effort to fight. It lies there, becoming more still, and after several minutes that stroll past in no great hurry it dies. Words taken from the book Wizard at Large by Jim Butcher and on sale now.


I am definitely not squeamish.

I have slaughtered my own deer, cows, pigs, and chickens for meat.  I have watched men bleed to death and others will themselves up and over the mountain.  With my bare fingers I have cleansed wounds crawling with maggots.  I have operated on cows and horses.  I have sewn dogs up and even sewed up a skunk or two that weren't the least bit happy with my generosity.  And yet, the stench of death is something so much stronger it overpowers me, especially if it emanates from the remains of a human being left long untended. 

The stench of death is present even before the heart quits beating, but the full power of the stench doesn't come into sharp focus until the third day dawns. Within five days you can pick the stench up with a shovel but it crumbles apart even as you bend down to look.

Death does not just blow away. In the forest the dead are quickly consumed by other critters.  What little is left seeps through the leaves and cloys the ground.  In the desert the sun slams the remains with an all-searching bleach and the dry howling winds suck out every drop of moisture.  But before the time of dissipation can drum its way through the flesh (left untended) ripens into corruption and the stench of a human gone dead smolders and magnifies in the eddies of air.  One sniff, a gasp, and then comes the retching unless one can remove immediately from the concentrated stench of death. 

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The uneducated don't realize that all smells are like tiny corpses left dying off the original.  When we smell water there are actual little drops of water that caress the sensors in our nose.  When we smell a skunk there are actual little drops of perfume lingering in the colloidal air we breathe.  Were it not so there could be no reaction in the sensors we use for smell.  Our bodies cannot react to buffetings which are not there.   Here is one way to  clean up a skunk for polite society. . .  

Mix up 1 quart of hydrogen peroxide with one fourth cup of baking soda and add 1 teaspoon of liquid soap.  

Scrub the skunk from front to back.
Rinse well.

Mix fresh for each day of skunk cleaning.  Do not store this mixture in a closed container.  It is so powerful it will explode.

Human corruption is far worse than the corruption of animals, though animals
are bad enough.  Unplug a freezer full of meat for six months then open the door. 
That freezer can never be cleaned enough for you to use it again.  You may
think you've got it gone, then it comes back stronger than ever.

It took almost six months for my mother to waste away in her little room at the back of my home.  Six more months have withered away and the stench of death in that room is still ripening into final corruption.  The stench of death smolders on still and magnifies in the eddies of air pushing out into my kitchen.  

"Oh, surely not," you protest.  "Surely not."

It did take almost six months for my mother to wither away and then pass on.  It was not a kindly death, not for her or for us.  Only love and duty made her passing bearable.  Body fluids leaked from every part of her body.  Perhaps even worse for me, the tobacco juice that dribbled from her mouth seldom reached the spit can but pooled up on the bedding and dripped from thence into the carpet.   The floors in Mama's room cannot be scrubbed.  Today the smell of death there saturates every fiber of a deep plush carpet.  It leaks out into the kitchen and climbs onto the counters where food is left out too long.  Six months later the smell of death is just now coming to the fully ripened stage in her room. 

I do not want to breathe or eat those parts remaining from my mother still here in my home.  Therefore I must determine when the food left open on the counter has absorbed too many little corpses and hurl it from the house or flush it down the toilet. 

Keep that door shut!  Open the windows.  Put a blower in the windows so that it sucks the air and the smells OUT of the house.  Even guaranteed odor killers work only for an hour or two, and then the stench of death comes back as strong as ever.  Everything in that room is contaminated, saturated with the stench of death.  The curtains are off the windows so that sunlight can stream in because sunlight hastens the day that the stench of death shall dance no more.

When your story asks you to describe death, think of these words, use these emotions. 
Should you ever need to use them it won't take many of them to make death more vividly real.

the end

Lin Stone is an author, writer and photographer living in Mena Arkansas
Much of his current work is done in the health care field.  More than
400 articles by Lin Stone appear on this domain alone.

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Earl H. Roberts