When my mom was a teenager, one of her most gratifying hobbies was sneaking into morgues to see dead bodies.
As she tells it, she and two or three of her other 17-year-old buddies would put on white dresses, catch a cab and show up at the Cleveland morgue every few months claiming to be nurses. They'd smile, bat their eyelashes and tell the morgue guys they needed to see the freshest corpse so they could report back to the hospital on the body's suitability for dissection.
The girls, all stunningly pretty, were always granted access, and every time, a morgue guy — probably knowing full well what was going on — would indulge them, opening a drawer, sliding out a body and unzipping a bag. Upon viewing the cadaver, my mom would affect an aloof tone, and either say, "Oh, looks good. We'll send an orderly right over to get him," or "Hmm, no — this one's not for us." Then the girls would casually leave, holding back their gut-busting screams and giggles until they got into the waiting cab.
Clearly my mom passed on the macabre gene, as I too harbor the desire to witness the grisly and the gruesome. Always have. As early as age 12, I was sneaking into funeral homes pretending to have imminent bathroom emergencies. I wasn't equipped with my mom's balls, though. Once inside, I'd just dart past the dolled-up bodies lying in their caskets and stay in the bathroom a long time, feeling a wild swirl of fear and fascination.
Since those days, however, I'd moved on, staying away from death and turning my attentions to slightly less ghastly stuff like boys and school — though my inherited curiosity always lingered just below the surface like a dormant disease. But last week, the disease was awakened something fierce as I started a program at Georgetown University called "Mini-Medical School." Anyone with $100 and a medical jones can sign up for it, but I think people are drawn to the program primarily because, as part of an anatomy lecture, it includes a visit to the med school's dissection lab.
Those Georgetown folks don't bother with foreplay, I learned. On the first night of the eight-week session, the whole class — about 125 of us — were told to get up and follow one of about 40 med students in white coats through the bowels of the building. Cadaver night was already upon us.
Distracted and busy in the weeks prior to the course, I realized I hadn't taken the time to rehearse this in my head and work out any possible metaphysical kinks. As I got up out of my comfortable auditorium chair, unanswered questions lingered like so much tissue suspended in formeldydhe. Like, would I get wrapped up in thinking about the corpses' life stories and end up running from the room in tears, screaming at the med students for their terrible callousness? Would I pass out, or start babbling incoherently? How many bodies would I see, anyway? And how close would I get? How cold would it be in there? Was I wearing enough sweaters? And, perhaps most importantly, would I follow my own genetic code and begin impersonating a nurse to try to commandeer one of the bodies? Unfortunately, I had to work out this stuff on the five-minute walk to the anatomy lab.
Passing through the room's threshold, the first thing that hit me was the smell, seemingly an odd mix of Lysol and Play Dough so thick you could taste it. The stark space, about the size of a large living room, was dotted with steel stretchers, each positioned about six feet apart and covered with denim-colored sheets. Under them, obviously, lay the bodies, about 10 of them, with their telltale bulges in all the right places. The room wasn't cold at all.
Jeepers, I thought. Death, the thing we most want to keep at bay, is all around me. Death, the central theme in so many horror flicks and fearful thoughts — it reclined to the left and to the right, for the first time ever and probably the last. The stoppage of life. There it was.
"Don't just stay here," yelped the cheerful, portly anatomy professor upon seeing people enter the room and stall out, stunned. "There are many more bodies in the next four rooms. Keep moving."
My head swirled. Jeez, more bodies than 10? So much human expiration. Dizzy from my own internal ramblings, I followed my randomly chosen med student, a sprightly Asian woman wearing a black and white scarf knotted around her neck. On the way to wherever she was energetically leading us, our small group made a right at a body already surrounded by mini-med school types. Glancing between them, I caught a tiny glimpse of that cadaver in its uncovered state, and was shocked to find myself involuntarily gasping and throwing my hand up to my chest. I saw flesh, an open chest I think, but what registered didn't seem human; it looked more like a giant flesh-tone piece of beef jerky that had been torn up by wild animals.
My little fit only lasted a millisecond, thank the goddesses, and I was able to steel myself and continue trailing dutifully behind my med student. And soon she'd reached her destination: a covered body in the corner of the room. I positioned myself near the cadaver's midsection and got all metaphysical again. There, two feet away, lay my first up-close and personal dead body. Had it had a happy life filled with travel and love? Was its spirit hovering a few feet above? Was it a man or a woman? Old or young? Fresh or pickled? Already cut up or pretty much intact? Would I barf or faint? The moment was thick with possibility, as well as a few other things.
"There's going to be a smell," our student warned as she waited for the small clump of us to draw close.
Satisfied with our placement at last, the med student grasped the cover near the body's head and began to peel it back. From that instant on, time slowed to a crawl. The process must have taken three seconds, but in my mind it felt like a half hour. A strong wave of the Play Dough-and-Lysol smell hit me and there it was: the body.
More than a human, it looked far more like a half picked-over, dried out turkey carcass left on the table after the family's retired to the living room for football and naps. Large parts of the person were sliced away, with dry scraps of meat hanging on bones here and there, and dry tangles of skin looking oddly crispy. But, of course, it was human. That was clear from the withered arm that lay near me, its hand covered in a black plastic bag and its small blond hairs standing up on end. I felt a little dizzy, but not excessively so. My legs got a tad shaky and weak, but I was reasonably certain they weren't going to buckle. I congratulated myself: I was probably going to make it through the session.
The body was that of a man. He was elderly, had died of colon cancer, the med student told us. He lay on his stomach, half of his pelvis cut away, just gone. There was no butt left either. I was standing right next to the cross section of what remained, and could see the dissected spine in there — more brown than white — along with various pickled flesh and mystery glands. It was intriguing as all get out. All this time I sit around thinking about my organs and bones, lamenting that I'll never really see them, and here, a foot or two from me, was a set pretty much like mine.
"I'll get a lung out," said the chipper student, reaching up under the body and extracting a beefy pink lobe, propping it up on the dead guy's back. She pulled out another unattached, Spam-colored lobe, and propped them up side by side like a kid playing with two action figures. I'd always pictured the lungs to be thin, small and delicate. But instead they looked like two hearty canned hams.
"So, like, I didn't know this, but the lungs extend up past the collarbone!" she said with glee. "That's why it's, like, really bad if you get punctured up there." With that she let the lungs fall back. She turned to grab a weathered anatomy text and balanced that on the guy's back, too, opening to a page featuring lungs. The book pushed hard into the departed's skin. A cohort whispered, "So the lesson here is: never buy a used anatomy book."
I ignored the guided tour of the insides for awhile and got lost in staring at the guy. His head was covered with a black plastic bag tied at the neck. I looked around the room and saw that all the bodies were covered in similar fashion, giving the illusion that the medical students had asphyxiated them all. Our guy's plastic bag had slipped, though, and I could see the back of his head. He was bald, had stubble and age spots on his head. The fleshy wrinkles at the base of his neck made me sad; those are the mark of sweet, grandfatherly old men everywhere.
I also noticed a small, crispy-looking maroon cylinder near me, with a back tip. It took a few seconds to realize it was half of the man's penis, sliced down the middle and hanging onto a large flap of skin that had been cut away from the guy's front and now lay by his side. It appeared charred. I looked down at his legs. Skin hung loose on them like the skin on nursing home residents I'd seen. I wondered if he was this saggy and wan prior to death, or if the chemicals did it to him. I wondered also whether he ever envisioned himself laying face down in a basement all torn up like this. I supposed he did, having donated his body to science and all.
Within minutes, the student was piling all manner of organs onto the guy's back. The rigid liver was hoisted up there and proved massive, the size and color of a football with deep grooves in it. Hanging from the liver was an empty forest green sack: the gallbladder. This guy's heart looked exactly like the ones in the anatomy books, except for the thick cord wrapped around it that indicated he'd undergone bypass surgery. All the organs, in such pristine shape, barely looked real, and pretty soon I had no more reaction to them than I would have had to a disassembled fiberglass dummy in a doctor's office. I wasn't even grossed out when a small chunk of the lung fell onto the floor. But when our guide pulled the intestinal tract out and plopped it onto the table near the guy's head, that was a different story. As soon as my eyes fell upon that mess, my gut tightened and instinctively I began looking around for a bucket.
The voluminous intestines were a disturbing beige-pink, and so slimy. She handled them without reservation, picking up the small pink bag that is the stomach, and running her hands along the ruffle-y lower intestine, pointing out the fatty deposits that hang from it like so many dangling white earrings. She pulled the sausage-like intestines this way and that to show us the connective tissue that holds them together. Telling us there are 22 feet of small intestine in the average human body, she deftly ran her fingers down to the bottom of the large intestine, like a chef proudly laying out a great wheel of cheese on a cooking show.
"Here's my body's rectum!" she chimed as if she was teaching kindergarten. "It's where the feces come out!"
The intestines were really awful. I felt a small heave building within me. I silently pleaded with the student. Please put those away. Please? Miraculously, she seemed to pick up the message, shifting her attentions to the trapezius muscles. She peeled back the flaps of skin, revealing muscles that looked remarkably like flank steak. "I'd tell you more about this, but we only spent a day on the back muscles," she said.
When I realized the people behind me were circulating around looking at various corpses — those of men and women, upside down and right side up — I tried to plan an exit without offending our coltish student. Pretty soon, though, with no more organs to talk about and the head off limits, our group disbanded. I hightailed it to a body about 20 feet away, an 85-year-old woman.
The group there, I was startled to find, all had on blue plastic gloves yanked from a box that lay across the woman's shins. I put one on, shuddering at the thought of actually touching something, yet very excited at the concept. I settled in among my new group and studied the woman, who was right side up. Her chest and belly were wide open and empty, except for a few organs that had been cut away, observed, handled, and then laid back down inside her. A lung lay by her covered-up head. Her kidneys — about half the size of a fist and looking just like, well, giant kidney beans — lay in position with a plump med student fingering them and orating about kidney stones. The woman's intestines were fanned out on a yellow lunch tray lying across her thighs. So quickly, I'd grown bored with the human intestinal tract. I wanted something new. I craved a glimpse of the uterus and all its hangers on.
Luckily, someone piped up and asked to see the woman's reproductive organs. In response, the med student took the body's entire pelvis in hand, turned it sideways — it was not attached anymore — and pointed out her pubic bone. He showed us how the bladder — a white-ish empty bag — lays on top of the bone and how the uterus lays on top of that. The woman's uterus — shrunken from age and lack of estrogen — was white, and only about the size of a stubby finger when viewed from the side (the only view I could get). A cute little pair of fallopian tubes extended from it thin as a wishbone, the tubes blossoming into greedy flowers grabbing the small white ovaries, no bigger than Jordan almonds.
Just then I looked down and saw I was standing in a shallow puddle of watery blood, reminiscent of that which pools around steak sold in Styrofoam platters. In it were a few clumps of mystery tissue. I thought about my shoes, ones I was wearing for the first time since last winter. I remembered with a jolt that last year the soles
had worn so thin that walking in snow or rain meant that soon my feet would be soaked. Oh, crap.
I skittered away, moving to a new body, this one a man who had perished of lung cancer. He was tall, lying on his back, eviscerated just like all the rest. A pompous young med student was handling the lungs, pointing out the black speckles that covered half their surface. Wow, I thought. Lung cancer — so dreaded, so invasive, so deadly, and it just looks like an unfortunate rash of ink spots.
The student rested the man's robust lung on his pelvis and showed us that the guy also had a penile implant, sliding the intact white tube out of the man's sliced-open appendage. "Circulation problems. He probably needed that following the double bypass surgery," he said, scooping the heart out of the chest and showing us the thick rope of replaced vein curling around the outside of the meaty organ. Then he yanked at a rope-like vein running along the man's leg. One could tell doctors had borrowed a few inches from that vein to do the bypass surgery, he said. He also pointed out a cyst on the man's kidney, which just looked like a raised bump, not unlike a sizeable mosquito bite.
I moved deeper into the series of rooms, leaping from mini-lecture to mini-lecture, marveling at how alike all the insides began to look lying on lunch trays under florescent lights. There must have been 40 dead bodies in that series of labs, all of which had given up the ghost in springtime and spent the summer marinating in alcohol and formaldehyde. I passed by one student who took a cadaver's entire detached leg and turned it over to illustrate a point about a vein. Then I came upon a student who had onlookers leaning over a corpse's back observing the spinal cord. I joined in, getting close and peering into the woman's spine, cut open to reveal what looked like white underground fiber-optic cable. The student — standing next to a rubber garbage can that read "Human tissue only!" — then launched into a discussion of the various vertebra, inviting us to touch. I looked down — I still had my glove on. Inner voices began to argue.
Don't touch that; it's a dead body — the thing horror movies are made of, said one side of my brain.
The other fought back: Relax, this is science. It's the body of a person who donated their parts for just this purpose, so you can learn.
Yeah so what? It's dead. Don't touch it. Besides, you're not a med student; you're a mini-med student. What learning could you be doing here?
I stepped forward, acting quickly before I had a chance to stop myself. I put my finger on the woman's spine and rubbed it around a little, shocked that it felt no different from the spine of any of the living people I'd touched, minus skin and plus a lot of gore. I backed away.
Pretty soon I looked around and saw that I was one of about five mini-med students left lingering in the cadaver lab. So as not to appear to be a freak, I said my mental good byes to the bodies, thanking them for the experience, and I took my leave.
Waiting for the elevator, I looked down at my gut. At long last, I understood it! The stuff in there was no big deal — not scary, not otherworldly, not all that inaccessible, and not really all that gross — except for the intestines. The mysteries of the inner universe had been revealed to me, finally. I had faced death and organs, and now I was just casually walking to my car. Damn.
Around the corner, I ran into the anatomy professor, looking kind of sweaty. "How did you like it?" he asked with a twinkle.
My words gushed out like blood from a bad puncture wound. "Oh man, it was great! Great! It was fascinating finally getting to see what I thought would always be hidden!"
He seemed pleased. And I realized then that most of the neophytes he sees probably fall into two camps: 1) Those who vomit and leave the premises with cramps and nightmares, and 2) Those who get so charged up about it all they feel like they just snorted a line of coke and now want to go dancing. Clearly, I was in camp two.
Mom would have been proud.