I’m often asked how I became involved studying forensic history. This explains a bit. (This is graphic-if you are squeamish maybe you had best skip)
Sunday at the Morgue – March 1985
I’m dropped off at the Medical Examiner’s Office at 8 AM
I’m to help out in exchange for a refresher course on sudden death in suburbia.
In the locker room, I’m outfitted with plastic apron and gloves.
A battered table holds a collection of phone books, a container of orange juice and a box labeled “ Pro Tex Mor” Adult Shroud Kit-.
A memo on the door advises on precautions against infectious diseases.
The walls of the grandly named “autopsy suite” are muddy beige cinder block. The linoleum floor, which has a drain in the middle, is slightly cracked. Fluorescent fixtures cast a greenish glow. Windows of frosted glass allow a shimmer of natural light.
There are three autopsy tables.
Each is equipped with a scale, a garbage pail, sink, and a small platform holding instruments: scissors, forceps, a full tang butcher knife. Deli-style containers stand open. Each table has a Stryker saw plugged into an outlet under it.
On the wall are blackboards on which I am asked to note the weight of major organs, as the numbers are dictated.
First up is a barrel chested man in his fifties, supine under the flowered sheet brought in with his body. His face is purple, his hand, with matching discoloration, rests on his chest.
A radio plays Frank Sinatra standards. The morgue attendants, wearing green scrubs, (one sporting a baseball cap) whistle along with
“Fairy Tales Can Come True, It Can Happen To You” …
A battered desk stands in the corner of the room. A sign over it reads “ Send Help”
The Deputy Chief Medical Examiner shambles in sporting a Brooklyn College sweat shirt and jeans.. He wears glasses, a droopy moustache, and carries a fishing tackle box. This holds an assortment of tacks, needles, scissors,. The morgue guys call him “Doc”.
The man with the flowered sheet is maneuvered onto an autopsy table.
A former cop, with history of hypertension and heavy smoking, he was found at the bottom of a flight of stairs in his home, wearing only his shorts. His wife put the sheet over him while waiting for the police.
There is some discussion about the possibility of the widow wanting the sheet returned. This seems improbable to me, but Doc tells me a story about a man who committed suicide with a carving knife, which his wife demanded back. We speculate a bit about her not wanting to break up a carving set just before Thanksgiving.
The flowered sheet is bagged and put aside.
The Y incision is followed by the moan of the electrical saw working its way through the exposed sternum. Coaxed from its home, the breast bone is placed under the corpse. The morgue guy, laboring at this, says“ Did you see that flick about the crazy cannibal shrink? Watched it last night. Made me sick. Hate gross movies “
Doc says the movie was dumb.
“ Did we take vitreous from this guy?” he asks.
The dead man’s heart is large, typical of long-standing hypertension, Doc says, drawing blood from it. Excess fluid is removed from the body with a large soup ladle. Doc’s arm is deep in the incision. When he withdraws it his gloves are covered with blood, and blood is smeared on his upper arm.
The ventricle of the heart is measured with a small baby blue ruler.
The lungs are enlarged and laced with black webbing, the ghosts of many cigarettes. After the major organs are weighed, and I inscribe their weight, they are placed on the small platform adjacent to the autopsy table, where they are sliced like bread loaves. The deli containers fill up.
(I am amazed to find that my hand is steady).
As Doc cuts, he holds tissue between his thumb and forefinger, and slices vertically between them. His gloved fingers, slippery with blood, are 1/8 inch from the blade.
He uses a large yellow sponge to wash the face of the corpse and to wipe down the table.
Its a jarring contrast between the physical effort involved hefting the stiff body, sawing at it, and the delicate, precise movements used to section organs, scrape bones, sever nerves.
Water circulates continually around the corpse, and its hair floats.
A pair of forceps, lying in the water, pointing towards the cadaver’s head, trembles with the current.
The bladder is opened, and urine runs into the drain. The ME slits the stomach, recites the contents;
“ Carrots, potatoes, green beans, meat-
Deep in the dead man’s thick iron gray hair is a wound. It was hidden, but Doc’s fingers find it. He incises the scalp, which, loosened, slips over the face, masking it.
The saw bites into the cranium, and the smell of powdered bone floats through the room.
When the bony lid is removed, an injury to the brain on the side opposite of the wound is revealed .The black, jelly-like mass of a subdural hematoma strips easily from the surface. This injury was recent.
“Classic contre coup” Doc says, naming the result of the brain smacking against the hard skull in reaction to a blow.
The photographer is deaf, but Doc is adept at charades to explain which views he wants.
The sheet is removed from a second gurney disclosing the body of a seventy-two year old woman who had been lying dead in her comfortably heated home for over twelve days, swelling slowly.
The smell is an eye-stinging gaseous miasma.
The hands and feet are partially mummified due to the dry heat. The belly is green, monstrously pregnant with gases and percolating bacteria. The toothless mouth gapes. The open eyes are sunken. The facial skin has slipped, resulting in a series of ripples along the border of her face just below her hairline. The skin on her cheekbones appears taut, unnaturally without lines.
Except for the swollen belly, the cadaver is tiny, shriveled, the hands dark and rigid.
When the morgue guys puncture the green abdomen, sluice its cavity with water, and arrange its pale, malodorous organs neatly beside it, its appearance becomes less distressing.
Frank sings “ Who Could Ask For Anything More?”
When I leave the office it is late afternoon. My husband, waiting outside in the parking lot, is very hungry.
I am both pleased and appalled to discover that I am too.A version of this appeared in Mystery Reader International
a version of this appeared in Mystery Readers Internationals