I was a morbid kid. Growing up, my favorite movie was My Girl and it sparked an interest in me to be a funeral home beautician. Clearly, that is not a realistic life path and my natural, social-butterfly instinct definitely suggested I should spend more time conversing with the living. But even in college as I was getting my degree in Telecommunications Sales, a career in death was on the back of my mind. I incorporated it where I could. In one of my elective courses, we had to shadow an event planner. While all of the girls in the course were head over heals for weddings, I went to the Shirley Brothers Mortuary. I was really just teasing myself by even going. How could I spin a TCOMM degree into something with death? Maybe I could do casket sales? What about opening my own funeral home called “Miss Madeline’s Home For the Dead?”- I might have quirky interests but my marketing skills are sharp.
So what makes a girl who has an entirely pink closet full of pageant clothes so interested in such a dreaded part of life? Two reasons stand out. First of all, my daddy was a State Police officer when I was a kid, then a detective for a decade, so I was raised on crime and chaos. Every day I rode in the police car and every night at dinner there was a story about an arrest or the local prison- it was daily life for my dad and by proxy, daily entertainment for me.
Being a police officer was not in my cards and even though I had a near-perfect GPA as a Master’s student in communications, I didn’t feel I had the smarts to go through med school. So now, part two of my ‘fascination explanation’ is that true-crime is openly popular these days. I probably listen to three episodes of My Favorite Murder a day and I’ve seen every episode of Forensic Files. This kind of morbid curiosity used to be a quiet, embarrassing confession for people, but has become fairly mainstream. Thank you, Hollywood.
This leads me to the pinnacle of my morbidity. I had the opportunity of my lifetime. Through my dad’s many crime connections, I somehow was privileged enough to attend a real-life autopsy. I had 24 hours of notice to prepare myself and had never been so nervous in my life. It’s nice to read about and watch on tv, but I didn’t know how I would feel in the presences of a body being splayed open. I spent the night before researching how med students respond to their first cadaver. There are plenty of horror stories of students passing out or puking. I began to think that my worst case scenario was that I could probably make it out of the room to barf, which was survivable.
Upon arrival, as I was all but peeing my pants with nervousness, the forensics team of three came in to start their work. I had already been at the morgue chilling with the body (literally) for a half hour waiting for this moment. (I at least felt like I knew the guy, so there was some level of comfort just hanging out with him).
Because of my personal research, I was prepared for most of the main parts that happen at an autopsy: the Y-shaped incision, cracking the ribs, removing the organs, opening the skull- but I thought I would just be there to witness these things.
This is where my day turned around: the doctor told me to get dressed if I wanted to touch anything. Instead of tensing up, all of my fears drained from my body and I honestly thought “this is my moment. This is my one chance to experience this. I will never have this opportunity again.” So boom. Next thing I knew, I was standing at the autopsy table holding a human heart. And the lungs. And the liver. And the kidneys. Even the brain. They totally put me to work weighing the parts and quizzing me on what was happening. I was having the time of my life.
Now, let me give you a more in-depth response to my reaction of what happened.
1.) The whole process only last 30 minutes. That’s it. I thought this would be at least an hour ordeal, but the team was super clean and efficient.
2.) The only procedure that really got to me was the initial step of pulling a vile of vitreous fluid off both eyes of the cadaver. Turns out, eye injuries that make me squirm in real life made me equally disturbed in death.
3.) Before making any cuts, two members of the team kind of… cracked the body?… out of rigor mortis by bending the arms up and backward like a hi-five. This allowed for a little more flexibility in opening his chest cavity..
4.) .. which was basically done with large garden shears that you would find at Home Depot. It’s not like surgery in a hospital. There is no intention of putting anything back in working order. This is pure efficiency. A few clips of the ribs and they were free to wiggle things around.
5.) The smell wasn’t that memorable- thank goodness. I’m sure there are some very rank cases, but luckily our guy had not been dead for too long and had barely any bodily secretions that are just as gross in life (aka poop or barf). It did remind me of the smell of raw meat, though- more like a pack of rich liver than ground hamburger.
6.) The brain was much bigger than I expected. I figured a brain would be about the length of an iPhone and height of a softball. This thing was a whopper- picture a small rotisserie chicken without the limbs. Otherwise, it looks like every fake brain in a movie.
7.) After each organ was examined outside of the body, it was placed into a red plastic bag, which was placed back inside the body. The skin flaps were then flopped back over, sewed up in just a few contact points to keep it all together, and then put back in the fridge before going to a funeral home where they make it look pretty.
At the end of the experience, I was absolutely beaming for the rest of the week. The whole procedure was incredible and I felt so grateful to have witnessed it. It is certainly a field that makes many people uneasy, but it is so necessary. Thank God there are individuals in this world who have found peace with it and can do the dirty work.
I found this to also be a good lesson on compassion. Our bodies mean nothing without our soul. That man in that body was super gone. It doesn’t matter what you looked like on the outside, how you did or did not style your hair, or what tattoos you chose in life. Our bodies are literally just a vessel for our soul to survive in. When there is no longer a person inside of that skin, it doesn’t matter what happens to it from there. So try to be less concerned with your appearance and the appearance of others and work on your innards. Our souls set us apart. We all just look like a slab of ribs and beef jerky on the inside.
So where does this leave me? A regretful marketing student in a library studying anatomy.