Updated: April 16, 2013 3:07PM
You never forget your first corpse.
I don’t mean one glimpsed in a news photo, or grandma, made-up in her casket, looking better than she did in life.
I mean a dead body, up close and personal, in, well, I almost said “living color,” the cliche, though “dead color” is a stronger metaphor, since, after you’ve seen a few dead bodies, typically unexceptional terms such as “gray” and “yellow” and “brown” take on entirely new, entirely unwelcome meanings.
My debut cadaver was selected for me, aptly enough, by Cook County’s first medical examiner, Dr. Robert Stein, in his office, before 5 a.m. one August morning 22 years ago.
He was sitting in his chair, scanning the list of bodies that had come into the medical examiner’s office the night before.
“Let’s start with the . . . ” he said, and shot me the briefest of glances, above his glasses, to gauge my reaction, “ . . . hotel decomp.”
It was summer, remember. Hot. A transient had lain on the floor of his low-rent hotel room for two weeks until he started to drip into the room below. We waited in the special room for odorous cases, with an air lock. I can still see the orderly, pushing that gurney, covered with a white sheet, slightly wavy from the glass in two pairs of doors.
The expectation is the worst part — that moment before the sheet is drawn back. You dread it, but you also want to see, just to end the agony of not having seen yet.
Which all came back, working my way through the medical examiner’s web site, to see the faces of the dead, last week posted images of the unknown online for the first time. The purpose is to aid in identification. But like most people who will go there, I am not the loved one of a missing person searching for answers, but one of the merely curious. No shame there — it is a natural curiosity, heightened by the fact that death has been so curtained off from ordinary life.
The site warns you: “Images posted in this section may be graphic.” Nine people, three with photos, right now, but more coming. Another warning. “May be in a somewhat decomposed or damaged state.” Nothing terrible. A mustached heavy man, plus a close-up of the tattoo on his thigh: a kitty smoking a pipe. Bet there’s a good story behind that.
An older man, white beard, blue eyes half open — as if in thought. He could play Socrates. And the toughest one — “Asian female, 60 years old.” Her eyes arched, as if laughing, mouth a gaping grin to show ruined, gold-capped teeth, bringing to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s refutation of all those blissful Victorian death scenes: “Who ever really saw anything but horror on the smile of the dead?”
Is it horrible? See for yourself — go to Cook County Medical Examiner’s website, click on “Unidentified persons.” As you do so, consider why we worry about identifying the dead at all. It is one thing to struggle to identify the remains of soldiers, who sacrificed for our country. But those who nobody claims? Who perhaps nobody misses? Whose families may have given up on them? Who might have given up on themselves? Why not bury them without a name? Why bother?
We do for our dignity as much as theirs. To remind ourselves that life still matters. Besides, not being claimed doesn’t mean there isn’t someone who cares, who loves even these dead faces. Maybe society didn’t do as much for these people as it should have when they were alive. But it can try to do this small thing — find their name — a nod toward our too frequently neglected humanity. And maybe it’ll solve somebody’s mystery.
Maybe you have a clue — maybe you knew a guy with a tattoo of a cat smoking a pipe. Maybe you want a glance as a memento mori — Latin, meaning “we all must die.” Your turn is coming. Mine too. Our faces won’t be on the medical examiner’s web site, if we’re lucky, but our features that smiled and frowned will freeze into that rictus that horrified even the master of horror.
Why? Why think on death at all? Isn’t it merely depressing? Not necessarily. The hope is, if we realize our time is finite, maybe we won’t waste it so. Mary Oliver has a lovely poem, “When Death Comes,” that urges us to live a life that softens our eventual death.
“When death comes, like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,” she writes. “I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering; what it’s going to be like that cottage of darkness.”
My favorite passage is:
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/I was a bride married to amazement./I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”
How few of us make certain we do that?
“When it’s over,” she writes. “ . . . I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened/ or full of argument/ I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
Once your face is posted on the medical examiner’s web site, it’s too late. Don’t fear death; fear not really living before you die.