Carrying the Dead

Owen Heninger was a young teenager during World War II. With so many men serving their country, Owen was sometimes called upon to do a man’s job at home. He seemed to have second thoughts after volunteering for this particular task. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns It was in the heat of summer in central Utah in 1943. Most young men were in the military where I wanted to be. Alas! At age fourteen, I was too young to serve. Therefore, I volunteered to do other things. I’d pick fruit or round up old tires and scrap metal to donate to “The War Effort.”

Our family lived in a large house on the expansive grounds of the Utah State Mental Hospital. My dad, a psychiatrist, was the superintendent of the hospital. He would sometimes come and get me, in the state car, to go with him to get an escaped patient to return to the hospital.

Therefore, it was no big surprise when I was called one afternoon to assist three male hospital attendants. They were to bring back an escaped patient who had been found up on the mountain close behind the hospital.

With the bravado often displayed by teenagers, I accepted the task. My mother drove me the half mile to the hospital to meet the attendants and see where the mission was to begin. I assumed that the escaped patient was ill or injured, as one of the attendants carried a canvas stretcher. I was later to learn that the patient was DEAD, and that it was I who would become ill.

We walked the narrow dirt road that led up the mountain to a level firebreak. It had been gouged out of the mountain about four blocks above the hospital.

After perhaps a hundred yards, the object of our mission became apparent. First by the fetid odor emitted from it, and then by a view of the escaped patient himself – or to be more correct, the corpse of the escaped patient. It was lying in a contorted position on the gravely ground of the firebreak. To add to my repugnance, hundreds of blow flies and squirming maggots were everywhere on the corpse, and it looked like the face had been half-eaten away.

As unsettling as the sight of this decaying dead man was, by far the most offensive and repelling thing and what was the most appalling to me was the shockingly putrid stench emanating from the corpse. It was like nothing I had ever smelled before, and even more disgusting than rotten egg gas. The stench set off waves of nausea and aversion in me. I realized that the only way to avoid the stench totally was to leave the task entirely.

Nevertheless, in my efforts to be manly, I endured the stench and actually helped roll the lifeless, decaying body on to the stretcher. Once the load was secured, I thought quickly and maneuvered so that I would be on the upwind end of the stretcher going back. I couldn’t escape all of the stink, but I got over my nauseous feeling and was able to complete my part of the task.

When we reached the hospital grounds, I think we were all pleased to slide the stretcher, with its rank burden, into a waiting truck. Satisfied that I had done a man’s part of the noisome retrieval, I easily walked the five blocks back down to our home. There I immediately shed my malodorous clothes and showered. It was a memorable learning experience.



Published: June 19, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 10