Bring Out Your Dead

The first dead body I see doesn't have feet nor a spine. Medical students removed them, none of us really know why. Its dried, mealy flesh spills out onto the table from deep slits cut in the armpits like crumbled pieces of clay. The skin is slightly gray and has a blue translucent glow magnified by the fluorescent lighting. I stand transfixed, staring at this corpse and trying to ignore the smell.

There are only three of us around this body. The lower torso is concealed with a white sheet. My other classmates are peering at the jars of malformed babies and abnormal body parts. No one is approaching the row of bodies near the door, five in total, each covered with more white cloth. I ask the man in the white coat if we could draw them too and he becomes visibly disturbed. Just one is enough, he says, and feels compelled to add that he can't understand why we'd want to draw them in the first place. Kind of an odd reaction, considering us ghoulish, coming from a man who works among the dead every day.

Deb lifts up the sheet and declares it's a woman. It was hard to look at first, but soon I'm studying the body intensely as I draw. Her breasts have slid to her sides, her nipples lost in a landslide of sagging, lifeless flesh. Her nose is flat and deeply creased where it has collapsed back onto her forehead. I try to see her as an object but the odor is really getting to me. I must stay objective. I observe her as a subject, though part of me wants to see her as human, I fight that urge. I cannot picture her as a lady walking down the street buying a muffin at a bake sale and waiting for a bus. I can only put down what's there.

Deb thinks this is fascinating and decides she'll donate her body to science. I do a few drawings in my sketchbook and watch as the man in the white coat unscrews two jars and removes a pair of heads. Basketheads. Their skulls have been cut away on either side, leaving a long, curved strip on top. One skull still has some flesh and hair; a crew-cut. Both skulls are empty. The man in the white coat grabs the basketheads by their handles, places them on a tray for us to draw, gives me a death stare while he rips off his gloves and leaves the room again in a huff.

I keep seeing the pieces of muscle and tissue spilling out of her armpits when I close my eyes, and realize it will take some time before I get these images out of my head. Even the smells linger, but all jumbled up. The pungent smell of formaldehyde and embalming fluids mixed with the perfumes and other scents from my classmates. The smell of the dead and the living together in one room.

I feel like I am looking at things differently now, more directly. Though the after-images and smells are disturbing, the experience has also given me a good lesson in seeing; no matter what your subject, look objectively and draw as if it is your first time.

I’m open to new opportunities.

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crosswalk shot across from the sfmoma with painting that reads think outside the building.