Death has a smell that paramedics know all too well

Some smells get burned into our memories, just waiting for the chance to come running back to the forefront the next time that particular brand of stink comes along

By Justin Schorr

On a recent Saturday afternoon away from the firehouse, the wife and I had a chance to do a bit of estate sailing.

We float from yard sale to yard sale, calling them estate sales, looking for a good deal on whatever we might be looking for that week. This particular week it was a coffee table and end tables for the new living room.


At one of the sales, we were led inside what was clearly the home of a recently deceased borderline hoarder. No, not that recently deceased, not like they were still there. But they kind of were, in a way.

Of the five senses, smell has to be the one that links to memory the best. A hint of popcorn may send your mind back to that first date so many years ago or burning rubber on a fan belt puts you back in the driver‘s seat of that race car you used to, well…race.

Odors call up memories quickly and powerfully.

When we were inside the home, I detected some distinct and very familiar odors. First, there was the smell of old cat urine, closely followed by what the occupant described as a “freshly emptied” litter box. Judging by my nose there was another box they didn‘t know about.

When that sharp odor faded, there was stale cigarette smoke emanating from the piles of clothes as well as what can only be described as “old smell,” a mixture of body odor and feces with a hint of spoiled food. Ask a paramedic to describe “old smell” and watch their face turn right before telling you what you just read.

Ever so faint in the odor profile of this tiny, crumbling home was the unmistakable smell of death. Yes, death has an odor; chances are you‘ve smelled it before. It is a stale stillness in the air where even the most offensive odors refuse to waft. It is as if the souls of the dead occupy that space, then move along somewhere else.

Outside in the car, the wife was furiously trying to blow her nose to get the stench out. “I can still smell it!” she laughed, and all I could do is smile.

That was nothing.

Possibly the most disgusting house my family has ever been in was a blip on the radar of scents my paramedic nose has encountered over the last 20-plus years.

The metallic taste you get when there is blood in your mouth is nothing compared to a room so full of fresh blood that you smell the taste and think you are the one bleeding.

Weeks-old, urine-soaked pants on a man shuffling from one filthy room to the next will turn your eyeballs inside out as you help him to a chair to assess his heart condition.

Meat rotting in an ice chest on a porch for weeks does smell like the man who died on his couch sometime last month. Similar anyway.

We do have masks, but they usually don‘t come out until it is too late. Besides, the nose can be tricked if you try hard enough. After all, that‘s how you eventually ate all your Brussels sprouts as a kid, right? Took a deep breath and just got it done.

The plan for patient care in a “no nose” environment changes very little from that of a spic and span apartment on the other side of town. We do what we have to do and get to fresh air as soon as we can do so safely.

ems job stinks, surgical mask paramedic

The trick is that after we do get outside, many of the odors we encountered decide to follow us home by saturating our uniforms and equipment. We can put sugar paste inside a mask and breathe OK, but back in the vehicle the smells are still strong. Even after a good hot shower, some smells linger.

They don‘t just stick in the clothes or the nose for a few hours, but they get burned into our memories, just waiting for the chance to come running back to the forefront the next time that particular brand of stink comes along.

For me that house smelled like relief. Not relief as in finally making it to the urinal, but a hard, tired life that finally let go. The smells of the house told the tale the residents did not speak of. A tale of dying, death and a life left to be picked through by random people out looking for a deal on furniture.

The next time a smell triggers a good memory, remember how your skin crawls every time you stick your head into a nursing home, catch a whiff of a bad piece of fish or sense something odd about the smell at a funeral. Now imagine having to stay there longer than you‘d like.

Yup, this job stinks.

Read next: How EMTs and paramedics confirm a patient is dead

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