A picture of a corpse

I saw a corpse on the street on the way to work this morning. Not for the first time, and, well, traffic violence is hardly worth commenting on these days. But a corpse is still enough to mark a day apart.

According to people on twitter, passers by were taking pictures of the corpse. People on twitter thought it distasteful, not right, undignified. Best move on, let the police and TfL clean up, nothing to see, nothing to share, nothing to comment on.

I didn’t get my camera out, but I took away a picture.

A line of cones and the blue folding “Police Road Closed” sign, gently swept traffic into a neat turn down a residential side-street towards the Clapham Road. The four lanes of the Brixton Road were incongruously empty. People walked in it and their comments and conversations could be heard. You don’t normally hear what anybody says on a London street.

Four red double-deck buses and one large tourist coach were all that was left of a queue that I guess must have been much longer. A TfL man must have worked his way down the queue, turning the buses back to send them around the diversion, and he was waving the coach through a three point turn. Beyond the police tape, empty and silent, the bus at the front of the queue sat at an angle, frozen in the middle of pulling out from the bus lane.

Beyond that, some way, a small pile lay in the middle of the northbound traffic lane. A jacket, leather I guess, and some other scraps of clothes. A few little pieces of rubbish left from where the paramedics and air ambulance trauma surgeons tried to resuscitate the corpse in the road. Perhaps they tried to replace lost blood. Perhaps they cut it open where it lay in a final attempt to get it started again. But they weren’t part of the picture, just a trace in the scene some time after their departure.

And then there was the corpse. Moved to the footway, just placed on the kerb, perfectly parallel to the northbound bus lane. Just lying there, out on its own in an empty stretch of street. They’d spread a crumpled greying-white sheet — too small — over it, and a bare, pale, very pale left arm and shoulder lay uncovered on the kerb, one of those old, broad, dirty stone south London kerbs. Not muscled, not skeletal, not obese, not hairy, a fairly typical arm for a fairly typical corpse.

And some way further on still, a motorbike stood on its stand where it had been wheeled onto the footway, out of the way. I don’t know motorbikes. Something dark, modern, clean and not obviously seriously damaged.

I only glanced over for a second, from behind the railings far away on the diversionary path, and I turned away and I kept walking but I took away a picture.

On the way home, the road was as it always is. Swept clear and back to the gushing open sewer of traffic it always is. Two kerb stones were perhaps a little cleaner. And flowers had sprouted beside where the corpse’s feet lay.

It’s not right to take pictures of corpses. It’s distasteful, undignified to share pictures of corpses. When people see pictures of corpses they’re liable to think there might be dead people behind the corpses, and they’re liable to become curious about who the people are and why they are dying. When people see pictures of corpses, looking human, looking humdrum, perhaps lying on boring kerbs, their own boring kerbs, in their own mundane streets in front of their own ubiquitous red buses, like they do every other day somewhere in this city, perhaps they might question why there are people dying on their morning commute, and why we keep just sweeping them away.

Show some respect, eh. No pictures. No front pages.


7 thoughts on “A picture of a corpse”

  1. I have similar but different story. I didn’t see just a corpse, I saw the collision, too. I won’t go into details here but motorists may not always be at fault. Sometimes even the infrastructure isn’t at fault. Sometimes people don’t pay enough attention to their surroundings. Design out such potential points of conflict? In this particular location that had already been done. Slow motorists down? The motor vehicle was travelling very slowly.

    I think about this particular death every day.

  2. A very passionate piece, and I’m pretty sure we would agree on a lot of what needs to be done to deal with what led up to this scene.

    But I tend to disagree with you on the basic thrust of your argument (or what I think your argument is). I have come to this during the past 30 years of campaigning, professional work, academic study on road danger. My problem is that throughout most of the 20th century the focus on aftermaths has led to support for “road safety” ideology and practices which have avoided the need to reduce danger at source (or indeed exacerbated road danger).

    For most people the “answer” to a road death can be the usual battery of hi-viz, cycle helmets, telling pedestrians to get out of the way of cars, getting car occupants to use more “safety devices” so drivers don’t have to worry about driving properly so much. And actually now – in London anyway – there is a lo of publicity for road deaths.

    And a lot of people taking photos ARE being prurient.

    Finally, can I say something about Carlton’s comment? I’m sure we all don’t always pay sufficient attention to our surroundings, and we should. But the fact is that carelessness is part of the human condition, and accordingly the practices of “road safety” have protected the motorised against such inadequate attention through highway and vehicle engineering. Why shouldn’t pedestrians and cyclists be similarly (or more) be protected against our inevitable carelessness?

    Also, even though we can argue that the carelessness is irresponsible and unpleasant for many others, there is a qualitative moral difference between hurting yourself and hurting – or even just endangering without any adverse effects – others. That is what needs to be emphasised, and why I make the comments I do above.

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