I used to know two quarrelsome sisters, the younger of whom had a thing about skin cells. When they fought, the older sister’s coup de force would be to strip naked, run into the younger sister’s bedroom, and roll around in her sheets, yelling “SKIN CELLS SKIN CELLS!”
It’s the first thing I think of in the Yale Mammalian Evolutionary Morphology Lab at 10 Sachem Street as Dr. Gary Aronsen, the lab manager, lifts a top-hinged cabinet door and wheels out a table. Much like a hospital bed, the table is covered with a white sheet and has foot pedals at its base: one for tilt, one for height. Less like a hospital bed, its white sheet is weighted by—lo and behold—a corpse, around which is a sprinkling of strings and flecks not of skin but of dehydrated flesh. Runaway specks of what was, in life, a short, elderly Chinese man. His crumbs.
Dr. Aronsen, who is in his tenth year of supervising Yale’s biological anthropology labs, has a mint-condition Jesus action figure in his basement office across the hall. A look at his website suggests he wears mostly cargo (sometimes camo-cargo) pants and muscle tees. His current research is primarily on extant primate ecology and behavior—“monkey business,” quite literally. But he’s very serious about the sacredness of this corpse, this human being, which the lab purchased several years ago as an anatomical teaching tool for classes like “Human Functional Anatomy” and “Mammology.” “I’m going to trust that you’re a good person,” he says before unlocking the laboratory door. Now I’m stuck between a shameful instinct to roll in the grossness of it all (“SKIN CELLS! SKIN CELLS!”) and the keen sense that I’ll be struck by lightning (or a flying mint-condition Jesus action figure) at any moment.
The man on the table has been plastinated; he has undergone a mummification of sorts. His body has been pumped with formalin to halt tissue decay, cut free of skin and connective tissues, dissolved of fat and water in an acetone bath, and, finally, stuck in a vacuum. Silicone rubber has replaced the water and fat formerly in his tissues and organs.
The 1,500-hour, $50,000 plastination procedure was first patented in 1977 by Dr. Gunther von Hagens, who has since gained infamy—and the nickname “Dr. Death”—for serving as the director of the international travelling corpse exhibition “Body Worlds.” Beyond a basic conservative revulsion, critics of von Hagen cite transgressions including a 2009 exhibit in Berlin’s Postbahnhof featuring children, dead embryos, and—positioned in coitus—the bodies of two people who never knew each other in life.
The body on this table comes from a “cost-for-service” plastination lab at the University of Michigan Medical School, which opened after Hagens’s patent expired in 1989. For almost twenty-five years, the lab—one of the only plastination labs in the country—rendered ten to twenty donated cadavers each year into dry, odorless, three-dimensional models for anatomy education. In July 2014, it closed for reasons not publicized.
Looking to the man on the table, I worry that he gave his body to science to escape the grossness of decay. Now, sections of his corpse have been dissected to different depths, in a sort of violent capitalization of his deadness. A visceral cut to the left cheek exposes root-like nerve tangles. The left arm is a meaty hunk of fibrous muscle. A horseshoe-shaped flap in the chest has been sawed with a serrated blade and sits folded over his groin like an apron. The flap is topped with yellow fatty tissue and plastic-bag intestines that add new color and texture to a brown body that is alternatingly wax paper and string and splintered wood and cave rock and packing paper and rope and burnt poultry. And in an act of insufficient modesty, the flesh apron covering the groin interrupts a thigh-bones-connected-to-the-hip-bone rhythm that could otherwise lead a person from this man’s toenails (still attached, still dead), up the tendons of his feet, past a metal shin plate (“Property of Yale University Equipment #170463”) and all the way up to his face. Which is also in layers. One eye is closed and lined with a thin fuzz of short white lashes, and the other socket has been intricately excavated around an epicenter of macabreness: a shriveled eyeball.
Then there are the pieces that have been cut away entirely, and sit on the white sheet to the corpse’s side. A lung. The heart. Half a kidney. Half a skull. The skull is cut at the brow line, its outside covered in peach fuzz and its inside cream-colored. A small cardboard box sits at the corpse’s feet. The box reads, “THIS SIDE UP.” His brain is in there, sitting on a paper towel.
It occurs to me that I could carry this box of brain across the room. I could put the brain on a graduation cap that Dr. Aronsen has positioned atop a steer skull , and I could place the kidney half inside a binder on Formaldehyde Spill Protocol. The skull bowl could go in the sink like a dirty dish, and the heart on one of the paper plates sitting above the cadaver cabinet. I could unpack the man and carry all the little pieces to corners of this lab—sprinkle the room with his crumbs. He’d grow vast with invisible tendons, until everything in the room was within him and between him. He’d be everywhere. A landscape. He’d take up the whole room, and he’d never even know.
He already does.