The next installment of The Gravecast Chronicles comes to us from noted author, Loren Rhoads who’s written several books pertaining to death and cemeteries in general. This article is titled Anatomy Lesson, and let’s just say it was a fascinating story so I hope you enjoy reading it.
Anatomy Lesson – Loren Rhoads
I woke up feeling ill. I choked down Pepto tablets and wrote about other things, but every glance at the clock brought the confrontation closer. I had dry heaves at the thought of setting foot inside the cadaver lab. The first thing that made me feel better was the decision that I didn’t have to go. I didn’t have to face death.
I was afraid to disappoint Tom, the man who’d offered to guide me through my first human dissection. During the school year, he taught human and comparative anatomy at a small university in Northern California.
It would be worse to throw up into a trash can than bail out, I decided. When I finally met him later that morning, I told Tom, “I don’t think I can do this.”
“It’s up to you,” he said amiably. “I’ve seen them before.”
I was amazed he could be so casual about the whole ordeal. Then again, he was taking me into the lab as a favor to his sister Ann Marie, my traveling companion. She’d initially asked Tom’s help to order me a fetal pig, so I could conduct dissection experiments in the privacy of my kitchen. He’d countered by offering to lead me through a fetal pig. As we passed messages through Ann Marie, he understood that what I was really interested in was human anatomy — and offered to allow me to dissect a human corpse.
Faced with the prospect now, I wished we’d started with the pig. Partly, the issue wassize: the fetal pig would be shorter than my forearm. It was controllable. Manageable. The thought of cutting into anything as big as me was scary.
“How about if we go out and look at that graveyard?” Ann Marie encouraged. She’d arranged the cadaver date for me, but never planned to accompany me. I would be alone with the corpse and Tom and the fear in my gut.
I knew that walking in a graveyard would make me feel better. A little fresh air and a walk around, looking at tombstones, would settle my stomach. I loaded film into my camera and got ready to go.
As we wandered through the churchyard, I wondered why I set challenges for myself that disorder my insides. Is it because I’m basically squeamish? I was furious with myself for being such a wimp. After we’d looked over all the headstones, I asked Tom, “Can we at least go up to the school? I don’t want to come this far and just turn tail.”
Simply stepping into a science classroom after so many years felt strange. The room full of rows of black countertops with sinks, tall stools pulled up alongside, was like a dream from my childhood. It had been eighteen years since I dissected a fetal pig in ninth-grade Biology. The lessons learned had long since returned to the ether, but this place brought them back to haunt me.
My stomach was still knotted. In the back of the lab, Tom drew out his sketchbooks. He was a graduate student in anatomy, studying muscular development in fetuses. I admired page after page of his illustrations of the delicate structures of fetal pig legs. Tom delineated the direction of the muscle fibers on one page. Another drawing sunk down a layer to reveal the tendons and blood vessels passing through the muscles. The next page showed the manner in which the muscles attached to the bones.
I’d never seen scientific sketches so detailed, so beautiful. These were works of art, planned and executed to lead your eye, shaded so expertly it seemed you could touch the textures with your fingertips. Their perfection was meticulous, worshipful. The sketches reminded me why I had wanted to be here in the first place. I wanted to understand the holy mysteries inside my body.
“I think I’m ready to look at the cadavers,” I said.
Tom met my eyes and smiled.
I had a lot of preconceptions when it came to handling corpses. I’d imagined myself standing before a wall of stainless steel freezer drawers like at the Mortuary College in San Francisco. In my imagination, the cadavers were draped with crisp white sheets. The bodies would be antiseptic. I expected them to be frozen. I thought everything would be as clean and neat as a television morgue.
The cadavers would be male, of course. I thought I could depersonalize a dead man more easily; I might empathize too much with a woman as the scalpel in my hand sliced her flesh.
Tom quickly rearranged my expectations. “Three of the four cadavers here are female,” he said. “I usually start people out with the women, since they’re the most taken apart. That’s a little easier for people to deal with.”
The bodies weren’t kept in refrigeration units. Instead, they were already waiting in the front of the classroom, lying in long stainless steel bins with wheeled legs and a hinged two-piece top. When Tom folded open the top, clear fluid spilled onto the floor. “Condensation?” I hoped.
“And some preservative,” he answered. When the worst of the runoff had stopped, he let the top hang down and opened the other side.
I was amazed we’d been in the room with the bodies all along. One of my memories still clear from ninth grade dissection was the horrible, headache-inducing smell of formaldehyde. I was glad preservative technology had improved.
A length of muslin floated atop the brownish red liquid. Blood, I thought immediately, and recoiled. Too thin for blood, it looked more like beef broth. Pools of oil slicked the surface.
“See that handle there? You can help me by turning it.” Tom moved to the far end of the tank.
There should have been scary music playing as we cranked the cadavers out of the fluid. As the bodies slowly rose, the muslin took on their outlines. Through the shroud, I saw bared teeth and the flensed musculature ofjaw. Two corpses lay head to feet. The skin had clearly been flayed from their muscles.
If Tom had made them twitch, I would have leapt out of my own skin.
He pulled on some heavy turquoise rubber gloves and folded the muslin so it shrouded both faces and one entire body. The other lay revealed. Her skin had been stripped away. She had no breasts. The muscle fibers of her chest were very directional and clear, the raw color of a New York strip steak. Some of the muscles on her arms had been removed to show the bones and tendons beneath. Her fingertips still had nails and skin. The skin was the color of dried blood.
“Do you leave the fingerprints on for identification purposes?” I asked.
“No,” Tom answered. “Removing those pieces of skin is really difficult without damaging the tendons underneath. And leaving them on helps to prevent the bodies from drying out and becoming mummified by the preservative solution.”
Atop her belly lay a yellow layer of fat, like the fat under the skin on a chicken: the color of butter and deeply repellant. The abdominal muscles had been sliced along one side. Tom tucked his gloved fingers into the gap and folded the meat back like opening a door. Intestines coiled inside as tight assausage in a shrink-wrapped package.
I stepped back to suck on my water bottle. “Have you ever seen anyone puke?”
“No,” Tom said. “And someone’s only passed out on me once. But I got lightheaded the first time. Both of these ladies’ eyes are open. My first experience was this person staring at me.” He waved at the one still hidden by the shroud.
“That would be hard. How long has she been here?”
“Longer than I have. I think she got here the semester before I started.”
“How do people donate themselves?” I asked. “Do they leave their bodies directly to the College?”
“No. What happens is that you make arrangements to leave your body to science. Any number of things can happen to it. You can end up as histological sections in a jar, or on microscope slides, or you could wind up like this. You can’t specify what will happen to you.”
“So the College puts in an order: ‘My department needs to have a full cadaver’?” I asked.
“Is there a national pool or something?”
Tom chuckled. “No, we purchase ’em down at UC-Davis. There used to be a mortician school that we bought from, but the people we buy from now do it professionally. Their job is to prep cadavers for this. They’re like $750 a piece. I’m sure an eighteen-year-old who died of a cocaine overdose on the basketball court would be more expensive. Those people don’t go to us. They go to a medical school, if they get donated at all. Young people are very uncommon. Most of these people are well-educated professor-types. The guy here was a lawyer.”
Surprised that Tom would know so much about them, I asked, “Do you know what they died of?”
“Some of them, yeah. I’ve seen their death certificates. One of these women died of cardiopulmonary failure, but her organs are full of cancer. The man in that other bin died of cardiac arrest. The woman we’re looking at now had multiple sclerosis, but the cause of death on the certificate is respiratory failure.” He shrugged. “That’s one thing about death certificates: they’re not all that helpful unless you know something about the case. Usually, if it’s an old person who died in the hospital of respiratory failure, a number of other things had probably already gone wrong.”
“I read in How We Die that it’s almost always pneumonia that finishes you off after other diseases have their way with you.”
He nodded and met my eyes. “Ready?”
I moved over to the edge of the bin and gazed down at the dead woman. Her sparse black pubic hair curled like wire above skin discolored to the orangish brown of tanned leather. I didn’t get sick or pass out. My brain simply separated from my body. I became nothing but eyes. “Could you start me out slowly?” I asked. “Just point out what we’re looking at?”
“Sure,” Tom said. “Her abdominal cavity is open. Humans have three body cavities. Think of the chest as thoracic. The abdominal cavity is separated from the thoracic space by a muscular diaphragm, which is this right here.”
He ran his gloved fingers under an opaque membrane.
“Wow, it’s really thin!”
“But it’s tough stuff. What the diaphragm does is separate this body space where the heart and lungs are from this body space where the stomach and liver and intestines live. There are only a few things that go through it. There’s a big artery that goes through it — ”
“The central one?”
“Yes. It’s called the descending aorta in humans. See where I cut it off?” Tom put his index finger into the collapsed blood vessel to show me its diameter. “This enormous artery feeds everything from here down.”
He shifted the loose organs around inside the cadaver. “Here is the stomach and the liver. The muscular diaphragm sits on top of that. Here’s part of it.” He pulled a piece of membrane out from under the dull cranberry-colored lungs. They looked like sponges. “The only things that pass through the diaphragm are the descending aorta and a large vein, which brings all the blood back up to the heart. That’s the inferior vena cava.”
“And the esophagus goes into the stomach,” I said.
“Right. So those are the only things that go through the diaphragm. Other than that, it’s a closed-off space. It’s sealed completely with a membrane called the peritoneum.” He looked at me. “You’ve heard of peritonitis?”
“That’s when the membrane gets inflamed?”
“That’s right. It’s an infection of this membrane. If you puncture the membrane, anyone will get peritonitis. Women are at particular risk, though, because the fallopian tubes just open up into the body cavity. There’s no connection between them and the ovaries. So there’s an opening into that body space in women that men don’t have, an opening from the outside.”
“Where the infection can travel up.”
“Exactly,” Tom said. “That’s why hygiene is so important. Women can get vaginal and urinary infections very easily, because the anus is so close to the vagina and there’s an opening into the body cavity. Once this membrane gets infected, you can die very rapidly. Not only that, but this peritoneum is a continuous membrane, which wraps around inside and comes around to the back and wraps the intestines. It’s as if all the organs are sitting in this space.”
I interrupted, “It’s a design flaw.”
“Not really. What it does is to keep all these things separate from one another to avoid them sticking together, because it produces serous fluid so everything slides against each other. There’s a certain amount of protection from abrasion to the organs and the inside of the body wall. In females, it’s just a problem because of the opening to the outside. Males don’t have to worry about it unless someone sticks something through their body. When people get shot in the abdomen —”
“They die of peritonitis?”
“Usually. It’s a bacterial infection of this membrane. I opened a shark once that had peritonitis. It was really disgusting. There’s really very little in there to protect from infection. You know, if the infection were in the body tissues, there’s a pretty good immune system to take care of it. It’s well-vascularized.”
“It drains,” I translated.
Tom nodded. “Whereas here, this cavity will fill up with fluid. White blood cells fight the infection, but the circulation isn’t the same as in the tissues. The abdomen becomes distended.”
He moved on to the next subject. “Most of the viscera are in the abdominal cavity. That’s the intestinal and digestive organs. The liver is mainly a digestive organ. The spleen is a large lymphatic organ that’s in here, and then there’s the urinary system, and the reproductive organs.”
Tom leaned over the cadaver. “Let me show you something really cool, then we’ll quit.” With his green-gloved hands, he nudged the intestines aside. “This woman was quadriplegic,” he explained, “and never had children. That’s why we use her reproductive organs to teach from, so students can see them in their pre-pregnancy state.”
I leaned closer over the table, intrigued now. The first time I had a Pap smear, the nurse offered to hold the mirror for me so I could see my own cervix. I was scared and uncomfortable and all I wanted was to get my feet out of the stirrups. Now I had the opportunity to see the mystery from another angle.
“This is her bladder.” Tom gestured toward a small onion-shaped organ, smaller than my fist. “See this, lying atop it? That’s her uterus. That’s why, in later pregnancy, women have the urge to pee so often. The baby’s weight presses down against the bladder.” The uterus was a small, unremarkable piece of meat.
“This fringed structure? That’s one of the Fallopian tubes. The other is over here. See how it wraps around the ovary? The egg travels from the ovary into the Fallopian tube, but the two organs are separate.”
The colors of all her internal organs fascinated me. I wondered how different the colors would be in a living or recently dead person. None of the organs had the bright red or blue colors of the plastic teaching torsos I’d seen. In fact, all of them were variations on meat-colored. No wonder the ancients believed we were created from dirt. Fashioning clay figurines must have once been an act of such power! Only the ovaries were creamy white, an unusual color amidst the rest. Because they were so different, they looked as if they had a special purpose.
As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t touch an ovary. I didn’t have gloves on, but worse, I was still afraid of the dead body.
Still, I was so giddy with excitement that I could have done a little dance. The inside of the body was a truly incredible thing that very few people ever get a chance to see. I felt blessed to have been given such a wonderful opportunity. And these women had donated their bodies to science to give exactly this sort of gift! They should be venerated as saints of science.
As Tom peeled off his rubber gloves, I asked, “Is that blood in the tank?”
“Maybe a little. Mostly, it’s fungicide, to keep things from growing in there. And it’s probably got some intestinal products in it, too.”
“Don’t they flush the bodies out before you get them?”
“Yeah. But every time you cut into an organ, matter leaks out.” He moved to the end of the tank and we cranked the bodies back down into their bath. “Usually,” he continued, “the preservative isn’t such a mess, but this probably hasn’t been changed all summer. I’d do it now, since the semester’s almost ready to start, but I’m not teaching this term.”
That night I ended up accidentally staying alone at Tom’s girlfriend’s apartment. I had asked to be left alone to write, but Ann Marie planned to come back to the apartment to sleep. Instead, she was too tired to return. I’d sort of expected that might be the case, so I was okay with it. Generally I don’t have trouble being alone.
Once everyone left me, I opened my notebook. I was going to write about how frightened I’d been to set foot in a room with dead people, how surprised I was that curiosity kept me upright, kept me looking. I was going to write about the tank where the ladies were kept (I wanted to say ‘lived’). I wanted to describe the bodies and the details of the injuries done them.
But I couldn’t. I knew if I started to write about those things, I would be awake all night. Instead, I wrote about going caving with Ann Marie up in the Modoc area of California. At midnight, I closed my notebook and went to sleep, but I left a light on.
I dreamed that my dad called. My dad never calls. In the dream, he’d been trying to reach me for a couple of days, but Ann and I had been camping in the middle of nowhere, and now I was not staying at the house where I was supposed to be. Dad was calling from a cell phone on a helicopter, flying to Chicago where my grandmother was dying in a special teaching hospital. She’d asked for me. I was supposed to come home immediately.
I woke myself up. Whenever I am stressed, I dream something has happened to my family. There’s never been any correspondence between when I dreamt about someone and when something happened to them. That would be too helpful. InsteadI dream about them when I’m worried about something else.
I looked at the clock. It was 4 a.m. In the morning, Tom was going to lead me through Cadaver #2. More than anything, I wanted to hold a human heart in my hand. I wanted to look into the engine of my own death.
I closed my eyes. All I could see was the torso of a woman whose skin had been removed. The cadavers were up the hill at the college, within walking distance. If they’d wanted to find me, they could have. I don’t think they wanted to frighten me. I was frightening myself.
Despite my anxiety, I felt as if I’d stepped across a threshold, into a holy place that few people see. Our insides are like a puzzle where every element tucks against the next and performs its magic in secret. Life seems even more sacred to me, now that I’ve explored a woman who donated her body to the study of it.
Maybe I needed another walk in a graveyard before I could get to sleep.
Copyright ©2014 Loren Rhoads
Loren Rhoads is the author of WISH YOU WERE HERE: ADVENTURES IN CEMETERY TRAVEL, co-author (with Brian Thomas) of the novel AS ABOVE, SO BELOW, and editor of THE HAUNTED MANSION PROJECT: YEAR TWO. For 10 years, Loren edited the cult nonfiction magazine Morbid Curiosity. She also edited MORBID CURIOSITY CURES THE BLUES: True Stories of the Unsavory, Unwise, Unorthodox and Unusual, a collection drawn from the magazine, which was published by Scribner.