Waiting on dead bodies: Stories of cops who deal with gruesome deaths in silence

Once, I spent the night right next to the body. I was scared. Can I tell my wife and kids about this?
 Waiting on dead bodies: Stories of cops who deal with gruesome deaths in silence
Waiting on dead bodies: Stories of cops who deal with gruesome deaths in silence
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When Chikkanna was recruited as a constable in the Karnataka Police in 1988, his father tried to dissuade him from taking up the job. “Why do you want to wait on dead bodies?” his father asked him. “But what was there to do in the village? A constable’s job was still a job,” Chikkanna recalls. With no idea of what police work involved, he came to Bengaluru from a village in Ramnagara district in southern Karnataka.

Once he completed his training and was posted in Bengaluru, his wife joined him in the city. Soon, he discovered why the job is colloquially referred to as “hena kayuva kelsa” or “waiting on dead bodies”. It was meant literally.

Chikkanna recalls the case of a young man who fell into a well and died in Bengaluru 20 years ago. “Our ACP found an address on his shirt. He was working here but was from Balehonnur, Chikmagalur district. It took the relatives a week to come and take the body,” Chikkanna recalls.

During this time, it fell to Chikkanna to look after the body. “There were no refrigerators back then. Once in the morning, and once in the evening, I had go to the mortuary and put ice on the body. The body was placed on a stretcher. I would get ice for Rs 50 or Rs 100, break it into smaller bits and place them all over the body. The water would drip down on its own. You can’t be scared, and you can’t hesitate,” Chikkanna recalls.

Rehman, a native of Bengaluru, remembers the first dead body he handled. “The man was about 40. He had hanged himself. I got scared when I saw it. I felt feverish for the next few days, but I continued to work.”

Dealing with dead bodies mostly became routine after that, but he recalls another time that he was particularly revolted. When hospital staff conduct post mortems, they sometimes ask for the police officer or constable to be present even if it is not mandatory for them to be there, Rehman says.

“They call us for complicated cases. Once, the man called me inside to ask me something about the body,” Sawing at an imaginary body with his hand, Rehman said: “He was sawing the body and there was such a horrible smell. I felt like vomiting. That day I went home and had two baths, but I couldn’t get rid of the smell,” Rehman says with feeling.

“What they do at the hospitals is really great. The smell… (is unbearable). They should be paid high salaries,” he said with a shudder, but the respect in his voice was evident.

Dealing with dead bodies – whole, mutilated, mangled, burned, chopped and stuffed into bags, decomposed, rotting – the police see it all. However no attempt appears to be made to study the mental health of the police, or look into whether their suicides were work-related.

When a dead body is found, it is the job of constables to stay with it until it is taken to the hospital for post-mortem. It could be several hours before the mahajar is conducted, and the body can be shifted. Sometimes the public will help, but often, the police have to move the bodies themselves.

Sukanya, who will retire in two years, says that the weight of these memories has taken its toll on many of them. “We’ve become like stones. We’ve forgotten what it is like to feel pain (emotion). We become silent spectators to death, we don’t feel anything after seeing so many bodies,” she says.

As Sukanya talks, Chikkanna cuts in: “Our eyes never tear up.” Other constables too mutter agreement.

Sukanya continues, “When something happens to our own loved ones too, we are silent spectators. We don’t cry.” She needs some prompting to explain what she means. “My husband died a year ago. I didn’t cry. People would have wondered why I didn’t cry when my husband died. But death has become so normal for us. I’ve seen women younger than me lose their husbands, and I think to myself that it’s ok, I’ve had a life with him.”

Beyond the grief in her personal life, the morbidity that her work throws her way has taken its toll. “We keep absorbing this (gruesome deaths and mutilation). Sometimes I can hear the screams of people grieving over the bodies of their loved ones when I sleep.”

And there is no one – within the profession or outside – who cares to find out how they cope with handling dead bodies on an everyday basis, and the haunting memories they accumulate.

The two instances that Rehman mentioned are the rare occasions when he has talked about this part of his job to his wife. “If something particularly disturbing occurs at work, I get quiet, or irritable, and my family notices. Nobody asks what happened. But I talk to my wife sometimes,” Rehman says.

Chikkanna, who is nearing the end of his career, says that he sometimes talked to his friends about things that disturbed him, but not family. “Once, I spent the night right next to the body. I was scared. Can I tell my wife and kids about this? They will get scared. I’ve never really attempted to tell my wife,” he says with a dry smile.

The idea of professional counselling services for the police, as available in the West, sounds alien to Chikkanna. Asked if he would like a similar service for constables like himself, he is skeptical: “Who will do that here? The government must do it.”

In the absence of any outlet to discuss such frequent horrors, most constables appear to have come to accept the unstated rule of maintaining a silence about the psychological burdens of dealing with gruesome deaths and brutal cases. They have developed their variations of a coping mechanism, the crux of which, is that it’s part of the job, and that its common.

“There are moments when I’m confronted with (something horrific) and I think I don’t want to do this anymore. But where will I go? I need to look after my family. I tell myself that I still have a lot to do with my life. I tell myself to have courage, and do it. After all, today its them (the bodies we deal with), tomorrow it will be us,” Chikkanna says.

Rehman agrees. He says when he joined the force 13 years ago, he had no idea about the long hours and the difficulty of some cases, let alone about having to deal with maimed bodies and injured people.

As he talked, it became clear that it isn’t just the overwhelming presence of morbid cases that takes its toll constables. “There is a lot of stress, a lot of pressure. When there is election duty, double duty or any other emergency, the pressure increases.” In a voice that sounds as if he is trying to convince himself, he says: “We have to take it easy. When we die, we will also be dead bodies.”

Chikkanna has the last word. “If we think too much about this, we might as well just quit the force.”

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