What do you when someone, a stranger, kills himself in a public washroom?
What do you when that washroom is one of only a small handful located in the building where you spend the bulk of your time?
Bizarre questions such as these scream out for context. So here it is: I am a university graduate student. Within the last month (or so I've been told, by multiple and ostensibly reliable sources), a mentally ill, 50-something-year-old man killed himself in the basement bathroom of the building in which my department's offices are located. I know nothing about the deceased, beyond the vague description just given. I do not even know his name.
What is most striking about this bathroom suicide is not that it took place in the washroom located roughly 15 feet from my own office -- the same bathroom that I used, with alarmingly frequency (being a 26-year-old with the bladder of someone roughly three times that age), during the previous academic year. No, what is most striking is the sheer volume of traffic that trudges in and out of that bathroom on a daily basis. Do these people not know? Do they not care?
No doubt the immediate difficulty here is epistemological, not moral, in nature. But should people be made to know? As far as I am aware, the university has made no effort to inform the campus public of what has occurred in the basement lavatory. Moreover, once made to know, should such knowledge influence peoples' future behaviour -- for instance, by driving them to use another bathroom?
At first glance, the only plausible answer to be given to every question in the preceding paragraph is a resounding 'Yes'. There are at least two reasons for this. To begin with, people might feel uncomfortable -- for reasons ranging from the religious and the moral, to the profoundly inarticulable -- with the thought of using 'facilities' in which a man is said to have asphyxiated himself. More importantly, an aversion towards usage could serve as a means of respecting the deceased -- of acknowledging the profound significance and sadness of what has occurred, and of thus refusing to place oneself in the immediate proximity of where the act of suicide has taken place.
Granted, the moralizing of the previous paragraph ought, I believe, to be viewed as somewhat moot; usage or non-usage of the bathroom should not be left entirely to individual whims -- rather, the university should act by closing the bathroom, if not permanently, then at least for a week or some such fixed period of time. Such closures could perhaps be repeated annually, as a kind of commemorative act.
Everything that I've just written would no doubt seem to signify, in some readers' eyes, a failure to show proper respect for the privacy of the deceased. Respecting privacy, this contrarian attitude might hold, means drawing as little attention as possible to the tragedy in our midst.
Of course, the strongest determinant of what would constitute respect in this case, comes in the form of the now-deceased. As a next-best alternative, perhaps his family could be contacted, assuming he had any, in an attempt to gauge the extent to which they wish to ensure the privacy of the deceased.
It is at this point that the picture becomes exceedingly blurred. We are faced, ultimately, with the wishes of the dead man's family on the one hand, versus a nagging feeling on the other that (regardless of what position is taken by the family, assuming that a family exists) the people who routinely use the bathroom, should be informed as to what has transpired there. There is no easy answer to this question: like the World Trade Center and the (in)famous image of the Falling Man, we remain dazed when in such close proximity to acts of desperation culminating in death. In each instance, there is an urge to will away knowledge of what has occurred, while at the same time wanting to find some way to lend an aura of dignity to that which should not -- cannot -- be forgotten.
For the record, I now use the bathroom on the second floor.