Scents and Sensibilities

by Mary Jumbelic

            Herbal Essence?

            Inhaling deeply, I envisioned the shampoo and its logo – a long-haired goddess, tresses decorated with flowers. Did she survive the seventies? I parted the woman’s hair carefully with my gloved hands like a stylist about to apply color. My work paused. The odor created intimacy. The scent of botanicals, the one I remembered from my youth.

            “Are you okay, Dr. J?” my assistant asked. Was I? The aroma lingered, as on a towel in my remote Baltimore home.

            “Smell that?” I said.

            Matt leaned in and sniffed. “Shampoo?” he asked.

            “Yes,” I said, “she recently washed her hair. It’s still damp.”

            His eyes took in the rest of her injured body. “Is that important?” he said.

            “Every detail matters in a homicide,” I said, then added, “in any case really.”

            I had an impulse to explain this truth; to elaborate on the science and distance the emotion. Instead, we stood respecting the quiet in the morgue amidst this fragrant echo of existence.

***

            A decade earlier, in 1987, my mentor told me to use as many senses as possible during an autopsy. More than just acuity. Rounds had finished at the Medical Examiner’s Office in Chicago. Fifteen bodies waited for us.

            “What do you mean?” I asked.

            “Of course, everyone uses their eyes, but you also need to touch,” he said. “Feel the organs to determine if they are normal or diseased. Use your fingertips to find abnormalities. Is it soft, hard, friable?”

            My pathology training had emphasized tactile descriptions of specimens. I inspected tumors and cancer removed during surgery — detailing texture, assessing solidity. Routine tasks. The rest of his advice proved more novel.

            “Hearing is important, too. Catching the sound of air or gas escaping from the body,” he said, then raising an eyebrow, “and listening for insect activity.”

            I winced. The life cycle of the blowfly had been unknown to me prior to this year in my forensic fellowship. 

            “You can tell how many maggots are in a decomposing body by the volume of the sound when they’re eating.” I hated the crunching noise they made; his statement on the maggot census unnerved me.

            He tapped the side of his nose with an index finger. “But this right here is the most important tool of all.” Smells filled the autopsy suite. Blood, body fluids, rot, decay. A kaleidoscope of aroma; customary scents of death.

            “Use it all the time. Don’t conceal its power like the cops do with Vicks VapoRub. It will tell you where someone has been, their habits, when something is different than expected, even why they died.”

            This astonished me. Odors arising from the dead required endurance not analysis; smells to be avoided or overpowered with orange-scented deodorizer and coffee grounds to absorb them. He instructed me to go beyond the unpleasantness and unmask what lay beneath the obvious.

***

            His words proved salient. My already keen olfactory sense found purpose in noticing what a person had eaten, their state of cleanliness, or detected poison. The more I used it, the more astute it became. I wanted to pass this skill to trainees.

            Medical students came to my office in Syracuse where I taught them the principles of dissection through performing autopsies. They were naive to nasal potential, like I had been in the distant past.

            I held up a container of gastric contents for them to sniff. They looked away. Coughed. Stepped back from the gurney.

            “Go ahead, smell it,” I said, demonstrating how to waft a hand over the open jar to bring the air particles towards the face. A brave upperclassman waved his hand over the container.

            “Beer,” he said, eyes widening. “I thought it would be like puke.”

            “Exactly,” I replied.

***

            My nose became my sentry. It gathered information, and calculated behavior. Common aromas infiltrated the malodorous background. The poignancy surprised me.

            “Look at this,” the diener said as I surveyed a middle-aged man.

            He pointed to the mouth. Crumbles of a pink tablet lodged in the teeth and coated the tongue. The wintergreen of Pepto-Bismol reached into my nostrils.

            The man took the medication to relieve indigestion. It did nothing for his heart attack. This powerful and immediate sensation affected me more than sectioning his occluded coronary arteries. The scent transported me to his pain, making visceral his final breath. I imagined the stab of discomfort, expecting the usual relief, and collapsing before the medicine was even swallowed.

A question formed in my mind. One I had often heard asked by loved ones of decedents — had it been quick? Solace in the mere conjecture of death’s rapidity.

***

            On an average Saturday, I noted a corpse’s external physical appearance. Tattoos, moles, and surgical scars, describing color and size. Lifting the man’s arm, a familiar scent emanated from the pit. Hints of nutmeg and anise captured in dots of anti-perspirant stuck onto axillary hairs. Old Spice?

            “What does that remind you of?” I asked my assistant as I held up the limb.

            Matt, used to my quizzes, took a whiff and replied, “I know it. Um. Wait a minute. Old Spice?”

            “Yes,” I said.

            He nodded but without any sense of accomplishment. The olfactory remnant of the corpse’s life sobered us.

            I pictured the young man applying the bar of deodorant. One swipe, two, preparing for a normal day filled with sweat. The pleasing bouquet evoked a time before the car crash, when his only care was unpleasant BO or shirt stains. Before the unexpected intersection with the semi, the exploding airbag, the shattered windows.

            I needed air.

***

            The fragrance of sentience entwined with the grave throughout my 25 years in pathology. A juxtaposition of normalcy and the unforeseen.

            Molecules of Chanel #5 rose from the skin of a woman who collapsed at a restaurant. My mother shared that same fragrance as she headed off to a VFW dance. The acrid nail polish from a recent manicure floated above a teen overdose. The identical aroma greeted me when I shared a spa day with my friend. Traces of Obsession on a man found dead at work blended with my husband’s favorite cologne. Vapors of hair spray drifted in the air from a nursing home patient and re-emerged from another can as I fixed my hair before testifying in court.

            Everyday smells imprinted during my quotidian catalogue of death. Limbic souvenirs of the vestiges of life. The scents traversed the boundary between before and after; crossing the frontier that separates the world outside and inside the morgue. A permeable wall of memory surrounding me.

Bubblegum, popcorn, pizza, orange juice, vomitus, beer, hair gel, body spray, toothpaste, mouthwash, blood, shaving cream, lotions, cigarettes, marijuana, chocolate, coffee, urine, coconut, lemon, cinnamon, lavender, pus, lilac, rose, satsuma, eucalyptus, spearmint, feces, grape, cherry, watermelon, cumin, garlic. Signature scents and generics. An encyclopedia of aroma. Reminders of lives before quietus that endure though my days as a forensic pathologist have ended. Proustian moments. Like the ambrosia of`Herbal Essence.

About the Author

Mary Jumbelic is an author from Central New York, and the former chief medical examiner of Onondaga County. Performing thousands of autopsies in her career, she elaborates a strong voice for the deceased. She explores through creative non-fiction the imprint the dead have made on her humanity. She has published with Rutgers University Press, Tortoise and Finch, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Vine Leaves Press, GFT Press, Women on Writing, Jelly Bucket, The Closed Eye Open, and Grapple Alley. In 2014, her piece was selected for the top ten in the AARP/Huffington Post Memoir Writing Contest. In 2021, another was chosen in the top ten for the Tucson Literary Festival. She teaches on-line courses on writing for the Downtown Writer’s Center of Syracuse, and is Assistant Editor for Stone Canoe. Stories can be read on her blog, Final Words, at www.maryjumbelic.com.