We All Smell The Same When We’re Dead

Peter Arango
4 min readJun 1, 2021


I’m an introvert and should remember that I’ll start to numb out somewhere in the first minutes of the second hour, but I forget just how forcefully I hit that wall even in the most pleasant social gathering, I have no idea where my wife lands along the personality continuum, but she stays on the phone for more than 30 seconds per call, enjoys lengthy conversations with folks she has just met, and clearly has much more staying power at holiday picnics than I do. I admire her social skill and wish I didn’t lose energy in the company of people I genuinely like and whose lives interest me.

Take yesterday, for instance. We were invited to a lovely luncheon with interesting people in a comfortable setting. I quite enjoyed the first hour. I hadn’t realized how quiet I had become until a latecomer entered into the conversation. Earlier in the afternoon I would have been fascinated by much of what she said and might have joined the discussion, but as she spoke I realized my mind had left the building.

I think the conversation had somehow slid into a comparison of the effectiveness of dogs versus pigs in hunting truffles. I like the word truffle so had almost come to the surface. I was on the way out again when the latecomer began to describe her experience of working with her dog in search and rescue. It turned out that having mastered the complexities of searching and rescuing, her dog had gone on to become a certified cadaver dog.

I know!

She and her Flat-Coated retriever, Morgan, were off the next weekend for their first workshop with actual cadavers. Apparently, donors had made their former bodies available for exercises such as these, and dog and owner were keen to get at the real thing. She had my attention now. Had I not lost the power of expression I would have asked many questions about the body farm they would be visiting and the logistical complications which might arrive with such a search. I am pleased to report that someone did ask about the difficulty in finding articles of clothing or other personal possessions that would allow the dog to track. My question exactly, or rather, one of my questions.

Apparently, it doesn’t matter. With a chuckle, the trainer advised us that a cadaver is a cadaver is a cadaver. Her delivery did not falter as she passed on this tidy fun fact:

“We all smell the same when we’re dead.”

I am prone to the occasional existential crisis. To be completely transparent, that occasional crisis is actually quite regular. I had just finished leading a six week virtual conversation on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and was up on Hinduism, Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism, and the practical and portable version of Zen Buddhism as it evolved in this country. Dharma, Karma, the search for one’s Buddha nature were on my mind, but I was not prepared to take man’s search for meaning to the olfactory level. In other company, in another setting, I might have blurted out, “Whoah! I’m looking forward to the transmigration of the soul,but I am not entirely happy to learn that for a while I may just be meat!” Or something along those lines.

Happily, however, I was distracted by more pedestrian thoughts, the first of which, I regret to say, had to do with how we smell as we’re walking around in our present state of being alive. I moved past the questions about where our smells go after … you know … to a quick cataloging of people I know well and their respective odors. I have encountered some distinctive bouquets along the way, but the more I thought about it, the more aware I became of my preconscious information about people and their emanations which must be part of the vocabulary in the interior language of dogs.

I use the term “preconscious” because although there is considerable scientific evidence to support the theory that scent is an important part of the attraction we feel toward particular people, it’s not something we’re aware of and certainly not the stuff of valentines. It’s not a secret, exactly, but it’s a bit awkward to admit that you’ve found a life partner based, to some degree, on a quality that we hardly recognize and one that we can’t change. Yes, we can mask the musk, splash on Dior’s “Hypnotic Poison Perfume”, spray on “Pheromone for Men”, bathe, stay away from garlic, onions, cumin and curry, but the base scent is ours and ours alone.

Until we shuffle off this mortal coil.

In what may seem a digression, I have had to admit that although I love to write and knock off hundreds of words every day to stay in shape, my powers of invention are limited. The thought of writing a daily column for a newspaper, for example, instantly reduces me to torpor; I simply have a limited number of ideas.

Where do I find grist for the mill? I’d be completely out of luck were it not for overheard conversions. My faithful readers will remember “Not the First Dead Thing I Kept in the Freezer — Overheard at the Coffee Shop”. Gold. Pure gold. What a gift it is to take a line like that and allow the questions to flood in.

I’m not done with “We all smell the same when we’re dead”. There are some profundities to explore and odd observations to make. Smell Dating, for example, which I hadn’t known was a thing.

It is.

And more of this anon.



Peter Arango

I’m the author of four novels and America’s Best Kept College Secrets, a retired teacher of the humanities, eclectic reader, and prisoner of popular culture.