Thursday, 25 July 2013

My First Dead Body

I saw my first dead body at the age of 19 in an anatomy dissection room.  I thought I had left it rather late to have that kind of seminal first experience, but my Dad didn't see his first dead body until 11 years later.  His first dead body was his father.  Who was either some number well in double figures for me or number 18 depending on whether dead bodies that were in the room but at whom I didn't actually interact with count.

And those are quite different experiences.

A cadaver (that's a technical term) in an anatomy department looks like what it is - a preserved specimen.  The skin is yellowed and loses its familiar texture in the embalming process.  The head has been shaved for better access to cranial anatomy and improved cleanliness (or because certain embalming techniques turn the hair to gunge).  They lie on metal gurneys draped in damp sheets and oilcloth to prevent drying out.  The facial features are unaltered - the jaw drops open, the eyes may not be fully closed and the eyeballs have probably slumped.  They are unfamiliar.

A grandfather in a funeral director's chapel of rest looks more like who he was.  He is dressed in clothes that were his own (although he got a new tie for the occasion) and what little hair he retained past his grandchildren's arrival is trimmed and combed.  His skin is cold and pale but skin coloured and his hands are folded.  There are probably eye caps keeping the eyelids (which may have been sewn or superglued shut) from sinking.  The jaw is held closed by a suture around the jaw or a plasic device.  He is recognisable as himself.

The anatomy dissection room I studied in was a large, high space with a parquet floor (you could do yourself some real damage if you were feeling woozy and fainted) and huge frosted windows.  It was a place to learn and felt sort of venerable but also exciting.  It smelled, just a little, of gammon and pineapple.  There were blocks and dissection kits and bone saws and brain knives to hand.

We viewed my grandfather in a chapel of rest that was small and softly lit, a place to see someone's body for the last time.  It smelled of air freshener and flowers.  There were tissues to hand.  A place to take my grandmother to help it all sink in.  A gentle, unthreatening place for my Dad to see his first dead body.  We spoke about it a little - the change in someone once their features are no longer animated, how the person we knew was gone, how in many ways he had been gone for some time.  I kissed his head, as I had when he was alive, and we left.

I recognise that my experiences are somewhat unusual, but they have meant that I am reasonably comfortable around dead people.  Perhaps not as comfortable as my forebears, who would have laid out relatives themselves (although I would like to think I could do that for someone when the time came), or as comfortable as those who deal with the dead on a daily basis, but comfortable enough.  And I think that's good.  Perhaps there's a place for coming face to face and hand to hand with our dead, in the world today where to die is seen as losing a fight, as a failure of medical staff to keep you alive.  Perhaps I understand a little better my own mortality.  Or perhaps I like to think I do, while merrily denying that I will one day die.

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