I Spent 3 Weeks In A Room Full Of Dead People & It Changed My Life
I recently went through a period during which I had no idea what I was doing with my life. It lasted about 30 years. A few years ago, while I was holding a human heart, that period came to a head.
See, I’m a writer. But I was trying to quit. I'd spent years having book manuscripts rejected and instead writing things like the promotional copy on energy drink bottles or informercials for "celebrity" workout plans.
After some particularly harsh feedback from my dream agent, I folded up my writing fingers for good. I was the only person in LA actively trying to NOT be a writer.
Instead, I tried other things — things my grandma would call "hippie shit." I got a Masters degree in Spiritual Psychology, which is just like psychology but with more praying and less Freud. I started a travel company. I became a doula. I studied Reiki, and I did what most people do when they have an existential crisis: I became a yoga teacher.
I was a horrible yoga teacher. I couldn't do a handstand, and I laughed out loud when people farted. When you’re a yoga teacher, people think you’re a doctor. They come up to you after class and ask you about their sciatica. I wanted to tell them the truth—that I just took some workshop with a bunch of other people in their thirties who were questioning their lives, and that I didn’t actually know what sciatica was.
So when I heard about an anatomy course that required 200 hours of full-on human dissection, I immediately thought, "YES! This might help me, and maybe it’ll hold the key to what I want to do with my life."
So, yeah, it was for yoga.
Deep down, though, the reason I was so into dissecting a human cadaver is this:
I am obsessed with death.
I read obituaries. I ponder my own. I bring up rigor mortis on first dates. I feel at ease in hospices, and I fill with compassion in cemeteries.
My dad committed suicide when I was 16. I didn’t talk about it for at least 12 years, but I thought about it all the time.
There’s a very clear before and after in suicide. I’ll never forget the the last moment of the before. I was practicing cheerleading in the living room, because that’s what I did when I was 16.
And then there was a phone ringing. And then there was my mom. Standing there. Stunned. Quiet. And she said it: Your father killed himself.
I could feel my nerves shutting down as the before bridged to the after. Neither of us knew what to do next. So I got in my car, just three months after I got my driver’s license. And I drove. And I screamed. And I cried.
I always get mad at movies when they show suicide as this romantic answer. One day I will make a Romeo and Juliet sequel where the Capulets and the Montagues have to find their family members' decayed bodies, read the police documents, and question whether it was their fault. I’d definitely have them pore over the medical examiner’s report.
Once I read my dad’s medical report, I stopped writing poems about touchdowns, and I started hanging out in my room. Alone. I would blast Bone Thugs N Harmony’s "Crossroads," and I would tell my dad I would meet him there, at the Crossroads.
I analyzed my dad’s death, but also death in general. How did it work? How was it that someone could create his own? What was the experience of dying? What was happening in the body, and in what order? What was it like for him to take his last breath and did he know it was his last breath and was he in pain and did he think about me at all?
I spent many empty minutes wondering how many days his body had laid there before they found it. Was it cold? Was it hurt? Was this real? How was he alive and then suddenly dead? Before. And after.
So, yeah, I am really into yoga and I want to help people with their sciatica; but when I made the reservation to cut up cadavers in an anatomy lab, what I really wanted was to stare death in the face. I wanted to know about it so I could stop wondering about it once and for all.
The only requirement for the course was to bring 300 pairs of nitrile gloves. I ordered them online and let them sit in my living room for a month, a beacon of fear or death or whatever revelations were to come. And then it was time.
Two years ago on a dreary day in San Francisco, 50 others gathered with me in a huge laboratory. There were 12 cadavers, too. We were to gather around, four per body, and slowly unzip their silent white bags. I chose a table in the back corner, where I thought I could hide if I needed to. And I needed to. I wasn’t ready. And I was really scared.
But there she was. Death. Death was real and cold. Death was bloated. Rounded, fat eyelids. Pale skin. Thick ankles and wrists. Cold. We named her "Cora."
This is going to be super weird, but I fell in love with Cora. With her body full of formaldehyde and her head shaved to prevent mold, I couldn’t really tell what she used to look like. But I SAW her. She had the most perfect fingernails and big womanly hips. I saw her moles, her eyes, her pubic hair, and the way her feet looked like they’d spent most of their lives in high heels. It was all of her. Total vulnerability.
I stood there choking back tears all the way down my throat. And they weren’t about my dad or my life or me. They were full of gratitude because someone—some total stranger—donated her entire body so that I could learn. Or so that I could face this death that had been plaguing me since I was 16. That is the best gift I have ever received.
When I had the courage to look at all 12 generous cadavers, they all looked the same. Cold. Shaved heads. Bloated faces and hands. Men and women. Black or white. In death, we are all equal.
Here’s where it starts to get weird — not that falling in love with a bald dead lady isn’t weird. This lab was different than a medical school program. It’s more holistic, designed to study every bit of the body. So, we went layer by layer, spending the entire first week simply peeling off the skin to study it. I can’t believe I did it, but I PEELED THE SKIN OFF A HUMAN BEING. LIKE A SERIAL KILLER.
And I fucking loved it! Yeah, I did. Every morning for three whole weeks, I was excited to wake up, walk to the lab, put on a fresh pair of gloves and get out my scalpel. I worried that I MIGHT actually BE A SERIAL KILLER — but if I am, I'm a cool one that does yoga and stuff.
It’s hard to explain the peace I felt in that anatomy lab. With every layer, I learned a little more. I learned that death is just another state. We are happy. We are sad. We are living. We are dead.
What came next was the layer of fat. It was yellow and squishy and looked like cheap carpet padding. Again, it was the same on every body (Another win against racists!). What struck me was its weight. Obviously, fat is heavy, but to carry Cora's hips around must have been a struggle. I felt compassion swell through my heart for Cora or for anyone I ever judged as too slow or too big.
Layer after layer, instead of death, I saw life. I saw how this machine we call a body works. And it blew my mind. For all of this to come together and turn us into these beings that can communicate with each other and love and feel and dance. It is magic. It is millions of pieces working in unison to make someone blink.
In the quiet cold of an anatomy lab, nothing is taboo. There is this wave of curiosity that trumps all in there. We were surrounded by bodies that were starting to look like picked apart Thanksgiving turkeys, and we were running up to each other saying things like,
“You guys, come check out all the dried blood we just found in Harry’s bladder!!”
"Gather around. It's time to dissect a penis!"
After two weeks of exploring, our teacher sat us down in our morning circle. He said that now things would be different. We would be opening death.
I had already taken death face on. I had learned from it. I had dissected its penis. I felt free and in harmony; I even felt some sort of closure move in on the story of my father. Our instructor said we were about to find out the causes of death just by opening the inner-most cavity.
So I — yes, I — busted open each of Cora's ribs.
Then I held her heart in my gloved hands and thought of all the love and blood that passed through it for 70 years. It was an enlarged heart. And it looked broken. It had been stapled and bypassed more than once.
In my hands, it wasn’t hurting anymore. Even as I sliced it in two, nothing hurt Cora now. And that’s when I realized: Death is peaceful.
A tour around the room let us see what had landed all these generous people in that lab with us. There was cancer. Tumors. So many tumors. Lymph nodes like rocks, green livers, collapsed lungs, pneumonia.
This was more than sciatica. This was hard. We’d been around death this entire time, but this was more. This was suffering.
Everyone has to die of something. Every machine fails one day. We all know this. At some point, there is a part of us that hurts. A part that doesn’t work. Or in my dad’s case, thoughts that had become diseased.
I like to think that corrupted thoughts are curable-- that we can learn to love ourselves or fight to stop depression, and that suicide is never necessary. And that my dad made a mistake and that he would be so mad at himself for giving in to something he could have fixed.
But I’ll never know the truth. I’ll never know what someone else’s suffering feels like and how much it may seem utterly unbearable deep inside. And no matter how many stories I write about it, you'll never be able to feel how painful it was that day when my dad left me for the final time.
It’s hard to explain the peace I felt in that anatomy lab. With every layer, I learned a little more. I learned that death is just another state. We are happy. We are sad. We are living. We are dead. I no longer fear the state that happens to be the final one. Sure, I’m not ready for my own just yet. But when it comes, I will be. After all, death is peaceful. And maybe that’s really what my dad needed.
In the time since the lab, I have watched people’s bodies more closely. I can picture the thick sciatic nerve when people complain about their pain. I don’t know what to do about it, but I know what it looks like. I see heavy drinkers and wonder if their livers are as green as the one from lab table #4. I watch heavy people carry themselves and want to hug them. Mostly, I have more compassion for all humans and their bodies.
But more importantly, I have more compassion for the little girl who lost her father.
This piece should end there, but I probably should also tell you that during this anatomy lab, wearing a white coat and with bits of brain matter on my shoes, I took a call out in the hallway.
It was Harper Collins offering me a book deal.
They'd seen a side project I'd written years before and wanted to make it into a kid's book called You Made Me a Mother. It's already on shelves!
The moral of the story is this: cut up dead people and your dreams will come true!
Images: Laurenne Sala/Instagram