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  • Sean Kneese

A Visit to an Autopsy Room

Updated: Apr 22



The first thing I noticed as we were walking towards the autopsy room was the foul odor coming from it. The smell reminded me of when we dissected frogs in seventh grade science class and my friend called me a “hippie” for finding it immoral. When we entered, there were two dead people laying on separate tables, being dissected and studied just like the frogs in my class. Both of them were middle-aged, one was a man who had jumped in front of a train and the other was a woman who had suffered a stroke. There was upbeat music playing on the radio, and the surgeons were dancing around to the music and going about their job as if they were working in a hair salon. One of the employees took the arm of the man who had died and started to walk away with it, and was laughing with her co-workers while doing so. I remembered what the head of the morgue had said before we went in, that one of the only ways for the employees at the morgue to cope with what they saw was with humor, so I understood why they acted the way they did.

Despite missing an arm, the man looked in pretty good shape for someone who had been hit by a train. When I first heard how he died my first thought was “what a terrible way to go”. However, when I learned it was a suicide, I felt somewhat relieved that he had chosen such an unpleasant fate and that it did not happen to him unexpectedly. As I looked at him on the table, I could sense the misery he felt while he was alive, and I hope that he somehow has found more peace in death than he did in life. It pained me to hear, afterwards that he had not been identified, and that his loved ones had not yet learned what happened to him. It is also possible that he had no one in his life that cared about him, and that may have been part of what made him feel so depressed in the first place.

As I watched them cut up and examine the woman on the other table, it reminded me of my own mortality and made me feel that we as humans are less significant than we make ourselves out to be. I remembered what Dr. Norma Bowe had said a few days earlier, that the person we would see on the table was walking around during that time. Her statement stuck with me as I looked at her on the table. I could tell by looking at her that unlike the man on the other table, she was not ready to die. Her hair looked as if it had just been braided, and one of her toenails was painted pink. Painting the rest of her toenails was most likely the least of her unfinished business. As soon as the one surgeon examined the brain, she knew immediately that it was a stroke, and just like that they sewed her back up. It was if she was just having her teeth examined by a dentist and they had just found the cause of her tooth ache. Now that the cause of death was found and she was able to finally rest peacefully, and perhaps get some closure before she went on to the next life.

Overall I’d say the trip made me appreciate life more. I realize that we don’t always have as much time as we think we do and it’s good to seize the moment as much as possible and to value life and the people I care about as much as I can. It also reminded me that it is good to remain humble because we are all destined for the same fate and whatever disagreements or differences we may have in this life, we are all the same when we die


*I wrote this in 2014 when I was taking a "Death in Perspective" class with Dr. Norma Bowe at Kean University as an elective for my undergrad. The theme of the c lass was to learn to accept death as a natural part of life and to become more comfortable with death. We took trips to autopsy rooms, funeral homes, and cemeteries. Dr. Bowe and her class was the focus of a New York Times best-seller "The Death Class" by Erika Hayasaki.

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