What I learned about privacy from finding a rotting corpse

Do you know what a decomposing body smells like?

You might have a basic clue. If you had to dissect an animal in biology class, you’ll remember what you thought was the smell of formaldehyde. It turns out that isn’t the chemical you’re smelling – it’s the smell of decomposition. You smelled that, of course, in a controlled school environment. In a natural environment, that smell is a lot more pungent, and there’s something else: the smell of alcohol. Not the sweet aroma of a nice glass of rosé: a harsh, bitter smell that physically stings. It’s another byproduct of decomposition, as the countless liquids that flow through our bodies congeal, curdle, and evaporate.

The only thing that will surprise you, once the source becomes obvious, is how you hadn’t smelled it earlier.

I had the misfortune to add this knowledge to my weird book of life experiences last year, when a chance conversation amongst neighbours in the close – “Have you seen Ian* lately?” “Not in a while, have you?” – answered its own question. As always, being the immigrant and therefore the only person who lifts a finger around here, it fell to me to phone the police on the non-emergency number and explain that a resident of the close hadn’t been seen in weeks and could they possibly check…

(*not his real name, obviously)

Not seeing Ian for weeks was nothing new. Because, let’s be clear here: Ian was an absolute fucking bastard. He’d been scrounging off benefits for years, faking illnesses with all the sophistication of a panto baddie. He got himself fired from a volunteer job in charity shop for stealing the goods. He rarely left the flat, and only did so to buy meagre provisions and booze. In a friendly close where gossipy neighbours all know each other well, he’d stomp past you without making eye contact or saying hello. You might get a “fuck off” and not in a friendly jokey Scottish way. If you did ever see him, you’d smell him first: his personal hygiene was worse than non-existent. He “kept himself to himself,” as they say, and that was fine with us.

However, that chance gossip – “have you seen Ian lately?” – was a bit much. So two lovely police officers came out. I showed them where he lived, explained how I’d knocked on the door with no luck, showed them how it was impossible to see anything through the mailslot. They then called out a locksmith to drill through Ian’s door. It was locked from the inside, no sign of forced entry. These little details told them what to expect. They reached into their pockets and took out surgical face masks. They gingerly pushed open the door, with me – nosey neighbour – following a safe distance behind. And as soon as they pushed that door, they threw those face masks on. A second later the smell hit me too.

Ian was on his mattress – bare, no bedsheets – rotting away. Three weeks dead, if not four.

They didn’t let me look, not that I would have wanted to. My attention was on something, as incredible as it sounds, a lot worse.

Ian had not used any of the bathroom plumbing in years. Not the shower, not the sink, and not the toilet.

That means exactly what you think it means.

I write for a living. And over a year later, I can’t begin to find the words to describe what a two-bedroom flat looks like when every wall and surface – from the front of the washing machine to the living room walls – has been used as a toilet, for both solids and liquids, for years.

It must have a busy day for deaths because it took a few hours for the body wagon to arrive. One of the police officers, bless her heart, had to stand outside Ian’s ajar door smelling that shit (literally) for all those hours guarding the flat. I invited her in for a cuppa and a relief break but her professionalism deemed that she refuse everything. That was a day’s work for her.

The body collectors opened up all the windows and the police sealed the flat.

A few weeks later when it was deemed safe for entry, a badly paid crew of council contractors began removing everything Ian had. I watched dumbfounded as they lifted up pieces of heavy wooden furniture which disintegrated into splinters at the slightest touch: years of urine and ammonia doing their work. The mattress where Ian rotted away also fell apart when they tried to lift it. They tried to lift the carpets; they too disintegrated into thousands of pieces. (At least, by this point, they were dry.) They pulled the faeces-splattered washing machine away from the wall and found the cord, at the back, still folded with twist ties and the plug still with its plastic cap: the machine had never once been plugged in, much less used. In the back bedroom there was a pile as tall as me – over five feet – and perhaps three metres wide. It was thirty years of unwashed clothing. It had all turned black.

The bedroom where Ian had lived and died had baby wallpaper in it, faded and covered in metre-long spider webs. He’d never bothered decorating, and had simply lived in the previous owners’ decor. Did living in a room meant for a baby feed his sense of infantile entitlement, I wonder?

And the newspapers. The clearout caused piles of hoarded newspapers to flutter down the stairs. They were still white. They were fascinating. They were thirty years old. (The Soviet Union was in trouble.) Whatever had malfunctioned in Ian’s head, the newspapers were a timestamp of when it had happened: 1989-1990.

The Council spent a fortune restoring Ian’s flat to habitable condition. If it was a detached property they would have bulldozed it. As it is, it’s now a loving family home, lived in by – you guessed it – a Polish family. Both parents are full time employed. The children say “hello” and “please” and “thank you” and hold open the close doors for their neighbours. It is as far away from the drinking den of a shit-soaked benefit scrounger as you can imagine.

But two things continue to trouble me.

One is the thought that every day of my child’s life, as I tucked her into bed in a warm, clean room, there was a human being living and dying in his own filth barely twenty metres away from her.

The second is that I spent all that time, just steps away, hyperconnected to my friends, my work, and my online communities. The wifi is always on. The mobile buzzes notifications. The email box pops up. Friends buzz me on Skype. The little green light in Slack tells me who’s around for a moan.

I also spent a lot of that time writing about privacy, refreshing my pre-digital embrace of it and finding new ways to encourage digital professionals to make a real difference for their users.

Yet all that time.

Ian had privacy. He exercised it, even if it was “get tae fuck”. That was his right.

But how does a human being living in a close of eight flats lie dead for a month before anyone notices?

How did someone who hops on a plane without a second thought live just steps away from someone who couldn’t be arsed to walk to the bathroom?

How does a local authority not visit one of its own flats for years?

How, in a world that collects so much data on all of us, can this happen in plain sight?

How, in a world where everyone matters, can someone take themselves off the grid in a block of flats?

Did Ian’s right to privacy entitle him to make it his neighbour’s responsibility to find his dessicated body?

Did Ian’s right to privacy entitle him to make it the council’s responsibility to scrape his dried shit off the walls?

What good is focusing on iOT toothbrushes and sex robots when society’s most vulnerable die alone?

Maybe I’m overthinking things. Maybe I’m conflating my work and my personal lives. Maybe Ian was just that much of a selfish arsehole.

But still.

I happened to find Ian on a wander through the local cemetery. (Yes, I am an inveterate wanderer of cemeteries. I bloody love them. Don’t judge me.)

He’s buried with a favoured aunt and uncle who had apparently left him quite a bit of money. That’s the thing. Ian had money. He didn’t have to live the way he did.

Nobody knows the date he died, though it was likely sometime in February 2016. So his date of death is recorded as 5 April 2016: the date I made the call, the date the police came out, and the day I led them to his rotting body and his shit-covered walls.

Something I did is carved in stone.

About the author
Heather Burns is a digital law specialist in Glasgow, Scotland. She researches, writes, publishes, consults, and speaks extensively on internet laws and policies which affect the crafts of web design and development. She has been designing and developing web sites since 1997 and has been a professional web site designer since 2007. She holds a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. Learn about hiring Heather to write, speak, or consult.