“Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.”
It is only fair, that duties within a group should be a revolving matter, everyone taking turns just like kids in Kindergarten. You may have to check your feelings at the door however, when the day arrives that everyone else goes home and you are left with the dirty work. That sentiment crossed my mind on the day I had to stay behind and put the heads away.
I was in Richard Nevitt’s anatomy class at the Ontario College of Art. His classes were held at the Gross Anatomy department, borrowing facilities from the University of Toronto Campus. I liked his classes because unlike some other quite opinionated teachers who wanted to make you over in their own image, Mr. Nevitt left you to your own devices, convinced that the best way to draw, was through careful observation, however that translated to personal style.
The subject… the wonders of the human body. This was no textbook course, it was hands on. What we received were the donated corpses student doctors would progressively dissect over the course of a year. The bodies started out quite whole, and by the end of the year would end up a bunch of bits and pieces which would eventually be gathered up and buried, after all that could be learned was gleaned from them.
The bodies had to last for a year, which meant that preservation was key. The progressive dissections came to us as a courtesy, and we were required to be good stewards in order to maintain the relationship between the two institutions. In practical terms, this meant spritzing the bodies with a mist of formaldehyde from a spray bottle, covering with cloths, and then with plastic sheets. The body parts were loaded onto carts and rolled back into one of the fridge lockers where they would be accessed by the doctors who were doing all the dissections.
We never knew what to expect really. One week it would be arms, another day, torso or organ dissections. You would get parts halved and flayed, which could be a bit jarring. We were warned, you had to have a strong stomach to take this course. Many dropped out after the first few weeks. I remember the first few classes. We had skeletons, all brown and dangling on strings, suspended like some kind of Halloween prop. We asked the teacher where he got the skeletons. He said that they all came from India. People there would sell their dead relatives for cash. Body parts, an odd commodity just like in the days when medical doctors had to unbury the dead for their own study by cover of night.
Mr. Nevitt was somewhat of a joker. He loved to tell a story which I am not sure is true. He said that his test for students, was on the day he first uncovered a corpse. Some would faint, others would become squeamish and run out. He said that while talking, he would be prodding and poking the corpses, then without warning he would stick a digit up the corpse’s butt, and then lick his finger. “As you can see,” he would relate, “anatomy is all about observation. If you were looking closely, you would notice that I inserted my index finger but licked my middle finger. If you noticed that, you are a good candidate for this course”. Still, it was disconcerting to watch him draw corpses, while eating a turkey sandwich for his lunch at the same time. I remember taking the course had an impact on me. I never looked at a Big Mac or a roast of meat in quite the same way.
The drawing was a fascinating business, so much that you would sometimes forget that you were working on dead bodies. The human being is fearfully and wonderfully made, as the Psalmist points out. If you did not believe in God going into the course, the amazing overlap of systems and just how well everything worked together, would draw you into mystery, the same kind of mystery that carried you around on two legs with eyes that saw, lungs that breathed air and sentient faculties that interacted with the world around you. You came to understand that small things like a ball and socket joint in your fingers, was self lubricating over the course of a lifetime and would only eventually break down. To replicate the same mechanical feat in science was always man trying to play catchup with God and barely succeeding. If imitation is a form of praise, then science is in constant praise of the Creator, because it strives for a pale mechanical imitation of what exists so easily within nature. Those who build prosthetics are constantly learning and tweaking their trade in an effort to mimic the wonders which simply exist, often unnoticed and under appreciated.
There is something very disconcereting about working with a dead human being. People tended to brush off the macabre by pulling practical jokes. You would come past a table and have a leg suddenly kick you when some practical joker was pulling on the tendon from the other end. There was also the unverified urban legend about students sneaking out parts for Halloween pranks, that everyone heard about. Still, it was hard to come to terms with the fact that what you were working on was human, and was once alive. To fully acknowledge this would be to note that all of us would one day be in the same soup. It is not the first reactions of twenty year olds, who are at that point pulling all nighters studying, and often abusing their own bodies with alcohol and drugs.
It was one thing to draw arms and legs. but heads are another matter. With a head comes a sense of individual personality. Eyes looking at you but no longer seeing. This was once a person. Someone walking around, knowing and known. Now a lump of flesh sitting on a cart. There came the day when my turn rolled around to put away parts. The students departed, and I was left in a classroom with about thirty heads, smelling of that sickly sweet odour of formaldehyde, somewhat akin to salt and vinegar chips. The other smell was not exactly a smell, it was something I never quite fully could explain, but had read about in accounts of soldiers returned from theatres of battle. It was the smell of death. There was not a particular scent attached to this, as much as an oppressive all-pervasive feeling in the air that was so heavy it sucked the very oxygen from your lungs.
Thirty heads looked at me, waiting. There was only one thing to do. I got out the formandehyde and started wrapping. I will only say, that there is nothing more eerie than feeling the weight of a dead head in your hands, like a bowling ball. It makes an odd thud when you put it down on a cart. To be left alone with thirty dead heads is not something you are like to forget any time soon. The minutes ticked by, and I was never more glad than when I could go and wash my hands twice, and escape to the outdoors where I could suck in my first breath of fresh air to rid myself of the pervasive clinging odour.
You put that kind of thing tucked away in the back of your mind because it is uncomfortable. It means thinking about your own mortality. Such thoughts were unearthed again when an elderly friend died and donated his body to science. I knew he would be one of those nameless lumps of flesh sitting on a cart in bits and pieces over the course of a study year. It also makes you think twice about the mystery of those who would take human life, the ultimate unholy act. It makes you understand that the magic of spirit is something which behind the mechanics must belong to God, to be messed with at your peril.
Eventually, you will know come to know a lot of people who have passed on to that mystery which we all face someday. It hits you in the face when you bury your own parents. You hear the words from Genesis re-read… “from the earth you have come, and to the earth you shall return. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. When you see a coffin consecrated with a cross of salt in recognition of our unity with the death of Christ, you start to plumb those mysteries of our relationship with God, in our body, and in our spirit and in the course of our life and what we have made of it.
I have never been quite comfortable with the idea of cremation. It seems a way of getting rid of the evidence, for those who don’t want to think too hard about the human body and death. It seems more fitting to me, to find a final place of rest in a graveyard, the place where we await resurrection, according to the promise in the Bible, that at the last trumpet we shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye. The dead will be raised imperishable, no longer a piece of Gross Anatomy, but joined with God in purposes eternal.
That class served me well. Learning to draw the human body from the inside out was something that helped a lot when I became a courtroom sketch artist. Because moments are fleeting, distant, with parties moving around, you have to be able to fill in the blanks, to draw hands as they were held for but a moment in a gesture, to understand posture, and how people look in motion. I am grateful for my learning.
I am further along in the mystery of what it means to be this odd combination of flesh and spirit walking about on two legs. But I will never, never forget the day I had to put away the heads.