How much would you pay to see a human body taken apart? Earlier this week, 400 people handed over the equivalent of $19 each to sit in a converted east London brewery and watch Britain’s first public autopsy since 1832.
According to some of his peers, the German doctor who performed the dissection — and who could end up in prison for doing so without a license — was merely giving his audience lurid entertainment. (He’d already made a fortune exhibiting cross-sectioned cadavers in sports poses.) But another physician, who performed the color commentary for Wednesday’s post-mortem, made a claim for the event’s socially redeeming value: it could help people overcome their fear of organ transplantation.
Pretty flimsy, you must agree. I can’t imagine that the spectacle of somebody else’s inert insides could change anybody’s feelings about giving away his kidneys after death. And recipients are presumably too sick to quibble over transplanted organs’ second-hand status. Watching an autopsy need not change one’s mind about anything, though in my case it did lead to a surprise.
It happened nine years ago, when I was in graduate school and still had time for such diversions. A medical student friend told me that his anatomy professor sometimes let the class bring in guests, so naturally I begged for an invitation. Convinced that my interest wasn’t simply ghoulish, or else not caring if it was, my friend agreed.
We met at a Dunkin Donuts next door to the hospital. I toyed with not eating breakfast, then decided I was likelier to feel queasy on an empty stomach. My friend told me gently that if I felt uncomfortable I shouldn’t hesitate to leave. I wondered if I was more apt to vomit or faint.
On our way in, my friend and his classmates in surgical scrubs greeted each other like any group of students straggling into class. It was a mild fall day and many surely wanted to be outdoors, but I sensed no dread of what awaited them inside. After all, they’d been at it for weeks.
I saw the first one before I was ready. Walking down a hallway, I let my gaze wander slightly, and there it was through an open doorway: the first dead human body I had ever seen. The skin was sallow, and the head was wrapped in cheesecloth. All the heads, I discovered a moment later when I walked in and found myself amid a dozen corpses, were mercifully covered this way.
The first cadaver I’d spotted turned out to be mine, or rather, the one to which my friend and the five others in his study group were assigned. (I wouldn’t be taking part, of course, but standing off to the side and discreetly observing.) Before the actual work started, we watched a video preview of what everyone was supposed to be looking for that day — all of it somewhere around the abdomen, as I recall.
I was grateful for a reason to look away from the flesh on the tables, if only for two or three minutes, while I steeled myself for a long and close inspection. I didn’t try to reason with myself that this was “only tissue,” and that it couldn’t bite. I resorted not to reason but to will: I simply insisted that these dead bodies would not scare me.
And it worked. When I looked down from the video monitor, the object on the table was no longer remotely horrifying; and as the young doctors-to-be made their incisions, it grew fascinating. The students’ attitude helped me stay calm. They chatted and joked without losing focus. One woman spoke admiringly of the corpse’s condition. Most of the bodies, my friend explained, were those of old people who had wanted their remains to serve the cause of science. Such people apparently tended to exercise.
When I went back to my room later that morning, I suppose I did feel a bit more alive, as I had hoped I would. But the feeling quickly wore off, along with my heightened awareness of death. What lasted much longer was the faint reek of formaldehyde on my clothes. After a dozen washings, I was still sure I could pick up the odor.
I spent an hour and a half watching people dismantle a human body in the hope that this would aid my understanding of life and death. The main thing I learned was that it changed nothing. I still didn’t really believe that the object on the table would one day be me. Otherwise I might not have been able to look at it.