8/17/10 - the indignity of death

In today's excerpt - the work of morticians and the indignity of death. We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget:

"An eye cap is a simple ten-cent piece of plastic. It is slightly larger than a contact lens, less flexible, and considerably less comfortable. The plastic is repeatedly lanced through, so that small, sharp spurs stick up from its surface. ... The eyelid will come down over an eye cap, but, once closed, will not easily open back up. Eye caps were invented by a mortician to help dead people keep their eyes shut. ...

"Presiding at the embalming table today are ... Theo Martinez and Nicole D'Ambrogio. ... Before the embalming begins, the exterior of the corpse is cleaned and groomed. ... Nicole swabs the mouth and eyes with disinfectant, then rinses both with a jet of water. Though I know the man to be dead, I expect to see him flinch when the cotton swab hits his eye, to cough and sputter when the water hits the back of his throat. His stillness, his deadness, is surreal. The students move purposefully. Nicole is looking in the man's mouth. Her hand rests sweetly on his chest. Concerned, she calls Theo over to look. They talk quietly and then he turns to me. 'There's material sitting in the mouth,' he says. ... 'What happened is that whatever was in the stomach found its way into the mouth.' Gases created by bacterial decay build up and put pressure on the stomach, squeezing its contents back up the esophagus and into the mouth. The situation appears not to bother Theo and Nicole, though purge is a relatively infrequent visitor to the embalming room. Theo explains that he is going to use an aspirator [to remove it]. ...

"Next Theo coats the face with what I assume to be some sort of disinfecting lotion, which looks a lot like shaving cream. The reason that it looks a lot like shaving cream, it turns out, is that it is. Theo slides a new blade into a razor. 'When you shave a decedent, it's really different. ... The skin isn't able to heal, so you have to be really careful about nicks. One shave per razor, and then you throw it away.' ...

" 'Now we're going to set the features,' says Theo. He lifts one of the man's eyelids and packs tufts of cotton underneath to fill out the lid the way the man's eyeballs once did. ... On top of the cotton go a pair of eye caps. 'People would find it disturbing to find the eyes open,' explains Theo, and then he slides down the lids. ...

" 'Did you already go in the nose?' Nicole is holding aloft tiny chrome scissors. Theo says no. She goes in, first to trim the hair, then with the disinfectant. 'It gives the decedent some dignity,' she says, plunging wadded cotton into and out of his left nostril. ...

"The last feature to be posed is the mouth, which will hang open if not held shut. Theo is narrating for Nicole, who is using a curved needle and heavy-duty string to suture the jaws together. 'The goal is to reenter through the same hole and come in behind the teeth,' says Theo. 'Now she's coming out one of the nostrils, across the septum, and then she's going to reenter the mouth. There are a variety of ways of closing the mouth' he adds, and then he begins talking about something called a needle injector. ...

"Drops of sweat bead the inside surface of Nicole's splash shield. We've been here more than an hour. It's almost over. Theo [asks], 'Will we be suturing the anus?' He turns to me. 'Otherwise leakage can wick into the funeral clothing and it's an awful mess.' I don't mind Theo's matter-of-factness. Life contains these things: leakage and wickage and discharge, pus and snot and slime and gleet. We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget."


Mary Roach


Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers


W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Copyright 2003 by Mary Roach


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