I WENT TO my first autopsy, and here is what I learned: Human ribs can be clipped with the shears I use to prune my floribunda roses. The smell of a man dead for more than one week is far more fearsome than his look. Dust casting from the round blade of a saw uncapping a skull will empty a room of prosecutors. While a body may or may not have been someone’s temple, there is something divine inside it.
I figured I would hate an autopsy. As someone who has never watched her own blood drawn and has to lie down for the procedure, chances were good that I would, at least, faint.
But I was writing a book about forensic science, so I had to enter the morgue. Yet I did so with clenched fists and teeth. The room was lined with clear jars of body parts awaiting their day in court. The stainless steel table was at the center. A scale hung over its foot, and above was a tray cradling utensils that looked more like hardware than surgical supplies.
One wall was dissected by the stainless steel doors of the coolers. Everything got real quiet when one was unlocked. The diener slid out the body bag, then pushed over to the autopsy table and shifted the body onto it. In German, the word “diener” has meanings including “attendant,” “responsible manservant,” and “slave.” In the course of their day American dieners will cut, saw, clean, and sew. But first, they unzip the bag.
Right then was when I ran out of fear. There was just no more left. It had never happened before.
At some point during a recent holiday, between the time I was peeling vegetables and ironing linen napkins, somewhere in North America a man was strangled in his own home. The hyoid bone in his neck was fractured. During the autopsy it was filleted out of his throat and laid out on a sheet to reveal three distinct notches where it had been snapped like a kitchen match.
By the time the forensic pathologist dissected out the fatal point of contact, we had been in the room most of a day, and in that time I had left the only chair in the room and edged closer to the story, the body, looking deeper into the corpse of someone who had been volunteering his time, befriending the needy, and buying a new car only the week before.
It may have taken only seconds for my fear to drain out and be replaced with something else. And in that small moment there was—maybe in those small moments there always is—a choice. For me, it was to flee the room or to shove the fear aside and fill the space with something better.
The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy is someone I know. We’ve had long talks about the effects of this work on the people who do it. He has told me that he thinks he may now be an atheist. I can relate to that. I’m well aware that I go to God only when I am in need. This forensic scientist has been more candid than others I’ve interviewed. He questions a God who could allow people to do what he sees them do to one another. And I’ve understood him, completely, each time he’s said it.
But standing over the wide-open body of a murdered man, I wasn’t so sure.
What I felt was pure, unabashed wonder at the way things work in the body of humankind. Just the way the ribs lunge out to harbor the heart and lungs— that alone was more compelling than squeamishness or the fear of the karma emanating from a murdered man.
My Catholic friends speak of near occasions to sin when they have a brush with something unsavory. For me, this was a near occasion to faith, perhaps a glimpse while I stood there looking. Just a flash. Just enough to get me out of the chair and maybe nothing more. But God knows, faith has been built on less.
From time to time I am running the copy from essays I’ve read on NPR’s All Things Considered. This is one of those. In fact, this is the first one I sold to NPR. See some of my other NPR essays here.