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.
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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