I Saw Dead People

by Fiona Lama

heart-cardiogramTwenty tables each with an occupied body bag were scattered across a holding room in the anatomical department. All of these bodies had been bequeathed to the hospital for medical study. The sign on each table was a list of student names who were to use that particular body to study anatomy and practice dissection. Empty stands that looked like music stands waiting for sheet music were attached to the end of each table to hold anatomy manuals.

The lab technician, “Burt,” smiled at me as he explained the rules of the place. No photography. Don’t use his real name or the name of the hospital.

I nodded, “You said you wouldn’t have a body to prepare tonight?”

“No.” His grin revealed that he was a smoker. “I have a body.”

I lowered my eyes feeling a mix of relief and dread.

“Do you want to watch?” he gently asked.

“Yeah.” I knew I had to do it, but I wanted to know how long it would last and could I sit down. If I felt I couldn’t take anymore, could he take me out of the room? The answers were: One hour. There was a stool, and no, once the process was started, he could not usher me out.

We left the holding room and entered the hallway to the prep room. The smell of covered up death  made my intestines lurch. “I wish I’d worn a diaper tonight.”

“Well, I don’t have one of those for you,” he chuckled.

He pointed out a huge cooler. Well, that explained the smell. It could hold 244 bodies waiting to be used by medical students. Burt told me that the medical students get attached to their corpses and even hold memorial services for them during which students express their gratitude to these bodies which were very valuable to them in death because they provided an avenue to becoming a better doctor. Many write poems to their corpse, others sing songs, and some even cry.

Outside the prep room, Burt paused. “You ready?”

I wasn’t sure, but I said, “Okay.”

“All right. Let’s do it to it.”

The door opened. I stepped to the doorway and saw the head and shoulders of the body. It was an older male, head shaved, which is routine for the procedure.

I shuddered.  I couldn’t go further into the room. My feet were planted.

Burt smiled with understanding. “It’ll be fine.”

“Do we have to shut the door?”

“Yes, I have to shut the door,” he smiled.

“Should I wear a mask?”

“Nah, we won’t need to. Do you want the stool?”

“I’ll just stay right here. If I want to leave the room, I’ll be right by the door.”

“Okay. Now there is another body in here behind this curtain. My partner will prep it tomorrow. Do you want to see it?”


The room was cluttered. I felt disappointed that the room was like a junky storage room. I guess I was expecting some kind of clinical theater instead of wrinkled sheets in a mound with boxes and buckets everywhere.

Burt said he normally puts on music.

“Great. Yes, please. Definitely.” The CD of  Better Than Ezra  had a calming effect on me.  A link to life in the death room was welcome.

Burt put on a pair of purple gloves. There was an opening in the neck of the elderly man. Burt started tugging at strings and once those lines were unknotted, he got the clamp, some  kind of hook, and scissors to hold open the hole in the neck and insert the tube for the chemical injection to preserve the body.  The dead man had paper towels over his private parts, and Burt explained that he didn’t have to do that, but he always did anyway even when it was just him alone with the dead. He did it to preserve their modesty.

These bodies were loved ones to somebody. Protocol was to treat the body as if it were your own grandmother. No comical comments about what anybody looks like. Burt was so self-assured with the whole process. He had been working there for fifteen years. Being alone in a room with dead people didn’t phase him in the least.  He respected these bodies.

Even though Burt’s face was a portrait of concentration, he chewed gum throughout the whole process. I even heard him sing a few words along to the songs playing. The songs were catchy. I found myself bouncing and swaying along to the beat as I took notes. I congratulated myself for handling this so well when Burt put down the scissors, and I jumped three feet from the unexpected clatter of metal on metal. Okay, maybe I wasn’t as relaxed as I thought.

The next time I hear the expression, “You look like death,” I might be tempted to correct it. This man really did look like death. Monster-like. He didn’t look nicely turned out like the deceased I’d seen in a coffin at a funeral home. This one was propped up at the shoulders, but his head needed no support. It just jutted out like a concrete diving platform.

I jotted down my observations about how unreal the man looked. He really was lifeless. It  was hard to imagine that he had ever lived except our corpse had a tattoo of a salamander on his arm.  A sign of life once lived. But then it began to dawn on me that this man had  lived. Until very recently, he had had a life. Was there anyone out there grieving for him? Who was he? His ankle tag had a number on it but no name.

I noticed that the body didn’t react at all to the invasive tools or chemicals. No twitches. I asked Burt if he ever talked to the bodies. He said that he would if it wasn’t taking the injection well, and he would tell it to come on and take it. He said our guy had taken it well tonight and that he would be useful for some students. Burt smiled and glanced approvingly at Fred. Yes. I had decided to give our corpse a name.

Burt moved around Fred and massaged his arms and legs to palpate the chemicals through the body. When at last the tube came out, Burt now used a thing that looked like a meat thermometer to repeatedly jam into Fred’s groin area. I didn’t ask. Then Burt pulled out a little fork. My eyes widened in horror as I wondered what in the hell he was going to do with that. He stuck it in Fred’s leg just one time. Fred must have been done.

Burt got out a big needle to stitch up the neck hole. There were times when I averted my eyes. I just didn’t want to have too strong an imprint of dead Fred’s image in my mind. After having sewn up Fred,  Burt did something I found touching. He said he didn’t have to cover the bodies overnight, but he always did. He picked up a white sheet and covered Fred but only up to the shoulders. Burt gently folded the sheet around Fred’s neck and shoulders. He was tucking him in for the night.

“We’re done,” Burt smiled.

Relief washed over me. I’d stood still for an hour, and I was ready to return to the world of the living. But before I did, I said a prayer for Fred to rest in peace.

Before we were out of the building, Burt had a cigarette in his mouth and lit up as soon as we got outside. I took him to dinner so that we could talk some more. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to eat, but I found extra comfort in a pina colada and carrot cake. Burt had two large beers to wash down dinner. I asked him how, outside of cigarettes and beer, he handled working with dead people everyday. He said he handled it by just seeing it as a job with good benefits.  He wants to do things nicely for the bodies who were still humans. He considers it a final act of care for them. Burt treats each one as he hopes he would be treated.

At 10:30 that night, I asked a friend to come over. We cuddled for two hours, and I wondered if he could stay the night. He said, “That guy is only dead. He can’t hurt you. You should be afraid of the living.”  He was right. Fred was at the hospital, not my house. Nevertheless, I kept the t.v. on all night for company and to lull me off to sleep.

I did not have nightmares. In fact, I realized that in death, Fred had helped me renew my appreciation for life. I drove over to my elderly parents’ house that morning, and the first thing I gleefully said to them was, “You’re alive!”

Category: Short Story, SNHU Student