Language, emotion and death investigation

Looking back at my interview transcripts, the proportion of my interview time spent discussing language around the deceased was small, but that does not, I think, undermine how important it was. This is because language not only conveys facts but is also imbued with meaning, both for the people using it and for those hearing it. These meanings can be multifarious. In the context of my research, we might primarily think of medical or legal terminology contrasted with social meaning. Whatever the context words, like ‘facts’ perhaps, are ambiguous and open to interpretation. And just like bodies, they can be imbued with meaning.

I was forcefully reminded of this recently in relation to the murder of Sarah Everard. The early statements made in relation to the case, which received much media attention, prompted many to speculate as to the meaning of words used in official statements. For example, in her statement on 10th March, the Met Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, made a public statement that ‘This evening, detectives and search teams investigating Sarah’s disappearance have found, very sadly, what appears to be human remains.’ Later the language changed to ‘the body’ – for example on 12th March, Assistant Commissioner of the Met Police, Nick Ephgrave, announced that he could confirm that ‘it is the body of Sarah Everard’. Similarly, the coroner, Patricia Harding, referred to the ‘body’ having been released.  The term ‘body’ now seems to be the dominant (albeit not exclusive) choice.

The initial use of the term ‘remains’ prompted speculation amongst many that the term suggested significant mutilation or at least fragmentation. In response to these conjectures, I spoke to contacts involved in homicide investigations – was there any official significance to the language, I asked. They told me that no such guidance existed and that the terms were used interchangeably.*

In law, we are often sticklers for terminology, for their finer meanings can determine liability. But whilst the police officers and coroner are legal actors, their choice of language here is not determined by any formal, substantive, law. Indeed, we saw a further shift when the Met Police’s Acting Det Insp Lee Tullett, one of the investigating officers on the case, told the (coroner’s) court that:

‘Our inquiries led us to an area of woodland, Hoads Wood, just outside Ashford in Kent and we discovered Sarah there on 10 March at about 16:20.’

That all changed when I started to speak to Anatomical Pathology Technologists (APTs) about their work in coronial autopsies. As I noted in my previous blog on ‘Caring for the Dead’, I often found that APTs would insist that, when in their ‘care’, the deceased body (/person) was referred to as a ‘patient’.

As APT 1 told me: ‘You don’t come in as a patient and leave as a dead body, you come in as a patient you’ll leave as a patient, whether it’s one that walks out or doesn’t, if you get what I mean?  And I kind of think that we’re a ward for deceased patients.’

APT 4 went so far as to explain that they would tolerate no other terminology:  ‘We’ve banned the word “body” from our mortuary, we don’t use – they’re all “patients”’

The reasons for this were not just about occupational context (we might think of ‘patient’ as a medicalised term) but also the emotional significance of the APT role, both in terms of their ‘care’ for the body and, for those that had it, their relationship with the bereaved. Thus, when I raised the possibility of using alternative terms such as the ‘body’ or ‘cadaver’, APT 10 rejected this by locating the body within its social context:

‘that’s possibly a little bit…disrespectful I mean they’re still a person, they’re still somebody’s relative, you know, I wouldn’t like to think of my relative being referred to as a body, you know, or as a cadaver, they’re still a person at the end of the day and they still demand that respect, they deserve that respect.’

Of course, there is a danger in generalisations, and not all the APTs that I interviewed shared this view. For example, APT 12 told me that:

‘They are bodies, they are all bodies. It depends who you are talking to – yes if it is family you are talking to, you wouldn’t refer to them as a body, but in profession you would.’

I think that this context is important. The emotional labour involved in the APTs role is not just linked to the meaning of the deceased body for the bereaved, because this must be balanced with the very different emotional labour of the acts involved in autopsies. This led APT 16 to reflect that:

‘…when I’m doing a post-mortem, they’re a body, there’s nobody there, there’s nobody within them, but they’re still a person. So, when we’re dealing with a body, it’s a case of, you know, you’re dealing with a shell, we’ll call it, and immediately they’re put back together, they’re back to being that person. When we’re doing a viewing… that deceased person becomes a person because you can hear stories, and it’s good to hear that, it’s good to know something about that person. We don’t know whoever’s in there. I don’t know anything about them, I don’t know anything about the lives. The minute you’re in here with a relative, you get to know them as a mum or a dad or a brother or a sister.’

What we see here is that moments and context matter, that emotions feed directly into language and that in turn language is important in conveying meaning, be that legal, medical, social, emotional, or political (and more). Interestingly, whilst the police may commonly use ‘remains’, the term was never invoked by APTs, even when referring to the most extreme cases of fragmentation and decomposition.

As with the forensic pathologists that I spoke to, the shifts in language amongst those working on legally mandated autopsies often reflected the different aspects of the role – the mutilation involved in autopsies being contrasted with the emotion of dealing with the details of locating the deceased person back within the networks and relationships that shaped their lifetime. This latter aspect is very different for forensic pathologists and APTs – the latter dealing with the bereaved and the physicality of the appearance of death, the former the visibility and challenge of a public legal process. It differs again for coronial pathologists, who do not have the same external facing function. I will explore their views and experiences in a separate post.

For now, I want to close by noting the importance of language for conveying external meaning. This is especially important where unexpected death is concerned because the emotional context is already heightened. But it is also important to see and understand the other side – that those working with the dead also must deal with the emotional trauma of death work.  Reconciling these agendas and needs throughout the legal process is complex but demands further investigation.

* Particular thanks also to Professor Carole McCartney and Professor Jim Fraser for discussing with me the language used regarding the Everard case and beyond. There is lots of work to be done here. It is also clear that the issue is one which develops throughout the criminal process. For example, in his book, Professor Fraser writes: ‘A body is the defining element of a crime scene, physically, psychologically and legally. No image or description can substitute for its presence in engaging you with your examination, in enabling understanding of the space you are exploring or the significance of the enterprise you are undertaking. An individual has ceased to exist and has been transformed into an object of acute professional, legal and scientific questioning. Who has died? How did they die? What events led to their death? Was someone responsible for their death? Who was responsible? The exact disposition of the body in space and time will be recorded, pored over, discussed, theorised, interpreted. Later, all of this will be anatomised in court. More mundanely, when writing reports, you are able to refer to the person by name because you saw them in situ, which is much easier than the cumbersome ‘the body of the person I now know to be …’ (Murder Under the Microscope’, Atlantic Books: London, 2020, p76)

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