In researching The Death Project, it unearthed something I’d long ago lost to memory — a field trip for an Anatomy and Physiology course to view a cadaver.

After a semester of dissecting cats and sea creatures, all 12 students were thrilled at the prospect of seeing a dead human body. We were also a little scared, though no one would admit it.

We were adults, at least 21, yet each of us was assigned a buddy, perhaps more for accountability than anything else. The 12 of us crammed in a school-owned van. To keep from getting scared, we laughed, nervously, as we told each other stories about death, funerals we’d attended, pets lost to reckless drivers.

The professor ushered us through a narrow hallway we could barely walk two by two. At the end of the corridor, the cadaver lay on a metal platform under a garish light. He seemed to glow.

The professor had us circumnavigate the body, inspecting every detail as he recited the story of the man’s death, but offered nothing of his life.

He’d died of skin cancer, a melanoma that invaded his body. A jigsaw-shaped black mark, not unlike Gorbachev’s, only darker and angrier, shined off the man’s forehead. Other black spots dotted his body. A colony of them formed at his chest.

In death, his hair had continued to grow, particularly at his ears and brow line where the tendrils seemed to be reaching for something.

In that cramped room, the cadaver looked less like a man than a mannequin in the mall or a wax figure in a museum. You had to keep reminding yourself that this thing was once flesh and blood just like you. And you forgot. Circling the body looking for clues of life and death, you forgot.

 

The smell reminded you

That smell you wanted to get away from. The smell you washed away after lab, choking in the shower after snorting water up your nose to get rid of it. The same smell as your cadaverous cat, the one your lab partner had nicknamed Stinky, though the smell didn’t stink as much as it invaded and haunted — a foul medicine that offered no cure except to preserve death.

“They must have pumped like 10 gallons of the juice in him,” my science buddy whispered to me. I snickered, nervously, but aloud, and looked up to see the professor eying me over a pair of reading glasses. He was not happy. I lost the smile and the thought of it ever returning. This was, after all, somebody’s husband. And, to follow that theory, someone’s father and grandfather and best friend and neighbor and…

Based on his age and the year I saw him, I figured he grew up in the 1920s. Maybe, like my father, he worked a farm in the morning before school, milking a cow if he wanted warm milk for breakfast. Perhaps he served in WWII. I saw no tattoo to align him with a specific branch of the military. In light of the scarcity of facts, I imagined him a good son, a fine husband, a better father and a loving grandfather.

And, if none of those things were exactly true either, there was one indisputable fact, a scientific proof — he had once been a man, and that would be enough.

 

For more from Daniel Williams, see:

The death project

Straight talk on the designation debate

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