Or what a young man, utterly without life, being cut open and placed into a plastic black bag, teaches us about living our own lives to the very fullness. Plastic black bags optional.
Written By: Cassandra Ernst
The mantra repeats inside my mind. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase once or twice . . .
I see dead people.
Of course, in my case, it isn’t ghosts that I’m seeing. No, against my better judgment, I agree to take one of my mentees to see an autopsy at the coroner’s office.
I blame CSI.
Now an entire generation of youth are convinced that they want to be crime scene investigators and I get to reap the benefits.
I show up, not really knowing what to expect or if I should be concerned about the fortitude of my stomach. I skipped breakfast, just in case. I had hoped we would be standing behind one of those convenient one-way mirrors. Instead, I find myself being ushered straight into the operating room with about a dozen other college-aged students.
We are handed gloves and a mask. Our only instruction is that we could be as close or a far away as we wanted. Suddenly, there is a body on the table of a young man who couldn’t have been any older than me.
He was twenty-four . . .
A year younger than me and had apparently OD’ed on prescription drugs that he took for back pain. I’ve heard people say that the dead look as if they could be sleeping. I never believed that empty platitude at the funerals I attended and I certainly did not see that now. Despite the fact that he laid there in black pajama bottoms and a t-shirt, there was no way one could ever mistake the boy of being asleep.
Within moments, his clothes are off. He lays there: bare, unmoving. Dead, yes. But dead seems an incomplete description.
Utterly and completely without life.
At that moment, all I could think is: this was somebody’s son. A friend. And now there is a room full of strangers staring at his disassociated body. Watching as another three strangers take pictures of his body, dispassionately recording every mark from his brown hair and goatee to the soles of his feet that were recorded to have nothing of note.
In the background, rock music is playing. Am I the only one who feels as if there should be some kind of moment of silence before they cut into this young man?
There is none. In strokes that seem too easy for me, the chest and stomach is sliced open in the shape of a Y. And I watch as this boy becomes a cadaver.
While two of the pathologists work at peeling back the skin on the chest and stomach, a third is slowing cutting open the skin of the head, pulling it away from the skull, being careful not to damage the face.
It’s about that time I see a black trash bag.
The intestines are being pulled out in great clumps and placed into that black trash bag. I take a step closer . . . not knowing from where this strange fascination is coming. I only know that despite my hesitancy at being in this room, I want to experience every moment.
The mask I wear does little to block the stench of rotted death as it grows headier.
At this point, the pathologists have seemed most concerned about getting a few vials of blood to test later in the toxicology lab. But suddenly, one pathologist turns on a small round saw and the entire class takes a few steps back.
The ribs are cut out, and then the top portion of the skull. The brain is revealed. They have the class step closer to get a look at the internal organs.
One of the pathologists begins an impromptu quiz of the body parts he touches. I am both amazed at the students’ knowledge—as my last lesson in anatomy was in high school and I never remembered much beyond the basic location of the heart, lungs, and intestines—and disturbed that students are naming off the parts so blithely as this cold body lies there without dignity.
Because that is the truth. There is no dignity in this kind of death – at least not like this – with a dozen college students gawking at your insides, watching as one of the pathologists pulls out the reminder of the urine from your bladder.
And yes, these people surely cut open multiple bodies a day, but it is hard for me to find humor from the morbid jokes—a favorite, I’m sure was when one of the female pathologists cut into the testes . . . she laughed and said that this was always the men’s favorite part.
Or the way they threw all the organs in that black plastic trash bag at his feet.
They bring those organs around . . . the heart, the lungs, the brain. They have us touch them. Yes, I have touched a human brain. The brain of this stranger. I am torn by the fascination of the entire experience and this odd wondering if somehow he is still in the room with us, watching as a bunch of teenagers and twenty-something’s poke and prod at his body. Watching as the pathologists weigh his organs and then cut into them, gathering select pieces—such as the pituitary gland in the brain—for further testing, as they throw the pieces of the organ into that black plastic bag. That plastic bag, which is quickly becoming home to all the parts that made him alive.
Or made his body run, at least . . . If there was ever a time I believed that we are more than a bunch of moving gears, it is in that moment. We have to be more.
At this point, I know I am through . . . a few more body parts are shown . . . the liver, the kidneys, but I can’t even bring myself to touch them. The surrealness has ended and I am left with the bleak reality that this young man, this boy, is dead.
I have seen every piece of him. I have even touched his heart. But I know nothing of him. He has family and friends who have truly touched his heart, not just the organ that pumped his blood. Yet, his heart is in that black plastic bag, along with the pieces of his brain that have been cut to pieces. A brain that he probably used to study and learn and to debate his points with others.
The organs always stay with the body.
That is what one of the pathologists says. They put that black plastic bag in the empty chest and stomach cavity to be either embalmed or cremated.
We would never want somebody to be buried without their brain.
They sew back up the Y-shaped incision, with the black plastic bag full of cut up and useless organs.
I take a step back, wondering how much longer I would have to be in this room. It had always been chilly, but the cold is starting to permeate. I feel my eyes begin to water, but my gloved hands—hands that have touched the lungs that brought him fresh air every second—prevent me from wiping them.
They wash off the body, scrubbing away the blood from the table. Another pathologist comes over to place him in a black plastic bag . . . this one bigger, with a zipper.
We all jump as he grabs the arm and yanks him into the black plastic bag without ceremony.
The pathologist shrugs, a little uncomfortably, as he sees our expressions. I think he may feel bad about his rough handling, as if he forgot we were there.
I used to be gentle with the bodies. He says as an explanation. But after awhile, you just stop caring.
I vaguely remember the professor saying something about a second body before we had walked in. I know that I can’t go through this again . . . at least not today. If another body comes out, I would wait it out in the office.
Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to be the case. We file out, mostly silent. A few of the classmates are asking what their friends think. I know at this point, I should probably be asking that question to my mentee. After all, she wanted to come because she thought it could be an interesting career.
She speaks first. I don’t think I could ever do what they just did. I don’t blame her.
Back in the office, there is a white board. It lists the names, dates, and probable cause of death for all the cadavers . . . the souls that once were.
The professor makes a quick comment about being glad nobody threw up. And then it is over.
I make a mental note of his name though. This body had a story . . . had a life before its unserendipitous end. And I feel like it is a life I need to know. And so I go to where every twenty-something soul writes their eulogy and obituary.
To be honest, if I had met this man while living. I wouldn’t have liked him. His politics bordered on extreme and some articles he posted had racist and religious intolerance undertones. But he also had a bulldog that seemed like his best friend and a niece and nephew that he adored. The last public post he had online was on his birthday.
“BY THE WAY: DOES EVERYONE ELSE AGREE THAT WE’RE GROWING UP CRAZY FAST??? Time cruises that’s for sure; so let’s all try to make the most of it. Even though we all know it’s not easy.”
In life, we would not have been friends. But in death, he reminds us that beyond our personalities or choices or hopes and dreams, we are all connected. We are the same.
It is this miracle of life that makes us all human and it is the essence of our soul that turns a regular beating heart into something that can feel so passionately – for our friends and families and even for a chubby white bulldog.
And I feel as if he’s here beside me now, reminding me how short—how precious—life is. He’s whispering in my ear to make sure that I make the most of every moment and that I seize every dream. I could be dead at 25 or I could live until 105. Either way, when I look back at the choices that I make, will they make me smile with joy or will I be full of regret for what could have been?
I choose to take his advice:
Let’s all try to make the most of it. Even though we all know it’s not easy.
Do you have a life-defining moment that reminded you to make the most of your years?