How I Learned About Life From Death

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Disclaimer: this article will be discussing graphic details of human bodies from a medical perspective. It is encouraged to wait to read this article when you are not in the middle of eating. Enjoy!

I squeezed his hand. Cold. Stiff. The inflexible phase of rigor mortis had set in. Holding his hand in one of my own, I used my other hand to scrub away the blood and debris. A hand full of colorful tattoos was revealed underneath. I continued my job scrubbing the rest of his hand, up to his arm, shoulder, neck, and face. This was a typical day of an intern at the Allegheny County morgue.

When I learned this month’s issue of Concept: The Magazine was centralized around a “Body Party” theme, I was ecstatic. I had seen and learned a lot about bodies this past summer through my internship at the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office in Pittsburgh, PA. I was stationed in the autopsy and investigations department from May to August. The experience was immersive and I am ever thankful to have had the opportunity to work side by side with some of the best professionals in the business. There were five of us interns in the department... all women.

We heard the bone saw; we felt organs in our hands’ and we smelled, well, what you would expect to smell in the morgue. But what we saw were bodies- young bodies, old bodies, burned bodies, drowned bodies. What was graphic and morbid to some, was the ideal learning experience for me. Learning about the human body does not stop after life ends; there is still much to be studied. However, given the enormous complexities of the body’s internal structures and cellular physiology especially within the context of forensic pathology; I’d like to think about bodies from an external perspective.

After a decedent is brought into the morgue, removed from the body bag, and placed on the autopsy table, it is the job of the medical examiner (a doctor specializing in post mortem analysis), autopsy technicians, and a photographer to document everything they can about the body in front of them, with only photos from the death or crime scene to reference. To do this, an external examination is conducted first. This step, before the actual opening of the body cavity takes place, is crucial to all cases. Wounds, ligature marks, and needle marks can give insight into how an individual met with death. As a matter of routine, there are questions to be asked and answered about a body when it arrives. If the decedent cannot speak, how can forensic experts draw accurate conclusions about the deceased’s personality, behaviors, likes and dislikes, or where they came from? I realized as the internship progressed, that one could learn a lot about a person from their body alone.

Though forever silenced, clothing, painted nails, dyed hair, visible scars, or tattoos can speak a lot about a body’s previous personality and their past. For me, tattoos were exceptionally interesting. All tattoos in particular must be documented and, in some cases, are crucial for identification purposes.  Assessing the tattoos’ placement, size, quantity, or even whether they are in color or grayscale, can provide useful information about the decedent. On bare bodies I saw memories of loved ones, some names written in cursive, dates stamped in remembrance, area codes, symbols, and quotes of all kinds that, perhaps take on an even deeper, if not poignant, meaning in death.

To say that bodies come in all shapes and sizes is the understatement of the century, and after death, that is even more true. The variety of what I was able to see this summer was astounding. Bodies twist and turn. Bodies bloat. Bodies decompose. It was incredible to observe how, after death, bodies can take on forms that could make one's stomach churn. For me and the other interns, we were beyond fascinated. Everyday at the internship, something new arrived and would test us. From the decedent, we were able to learn about anatomy, physiology, and the way our bodies work. Regardless of race, gender, or age, every body -or everybody- was different. Every body presented a new set of problems, a new story. After completing the internship, I realized I wanted to learn as much as possible about the human body and people, whether they were alive or not. In doing so, just maybe I can learn a little bit about my own body along the way.

Hannah Gross (she/her) is a senior at Chatham University studying biology and criminology. She hopes pursue medical school after graduation. Aside from the sciences, she loves to hike and explore everything from mountains to deserts.