I used to love working on autopsies…before I started to see too damn many of them.
My second case ever was a complete thoracic/abdominal/cranial autopsy, or “full post” as we in the business say. I had no idea what to expect, but it was my second week on the job and my very first case, a normal old guy who died in a normal old guy way, had me running out of the room fighting back the urge to throw up. One moment my supervisor was demonstrating incision techniques; he made the cut along the collarbone and then the room started to go black and my knees got weak. I tried to hang on; I got hired straight off the street after telling them I had absolutely no experience in the business; it “just seemed like something interesting.” I wanted to do a good job, and here I was, about to vomit because I was looking at what I could expect to be doing every day. But I knew I was about to lose it, so I just said, “I have to leave the room” and he knew what was going on.
Later I was able to come back in and finish the job, and the supervisor told me not to worry; that it happens to a lot of people. I was mortified. I questioned my ability to do the job.
The next day, I got sick again after witnessing an eye enucleation – someone from the eye bank came to the prep room to remove the eyes of a woman who was a donor. My reaction was swift. The guy felt bad for me. Once again, something I just could not bear to watch.
Then, I was informed we had a full post case, a guy who had been shot eight times with a small handgun. The supervisor told me we had to hurry; “If you start to get sick, just go to the corner and sit down, then come right back.”
It was the neatest thing I’d ever seen. I did not get sick at all, even though the whole body was laid out and flayed open in the most graphic way possible. I had never seen anything like it. I realized that not only was I doing something really important and meaningful for this murder victim’s family, I was also doing something really cool! I get to do and see things that other people do not!
Steve explained everything in detailed steps: how to treat the viscera. How to sew up the cavities. How to replace the skullcap and sew the head back together. The differences between autopsy chemicals and regular embalming chemicals. It was the only autopsy case I’d have all year, and I really looked forward to another one. I would be one of the few students in mortuary school who had not only seen, but actually repaired, a full post.
Then I worked in a high-volume embalming center where we’d get several autopsies a week. Not only that, we’d get autopsies we hadn’t seen before. Babies. Very obese people. Spinal autopsies. Autopsies that were also bone and skin donors. Badly decomposed people. I became the only one who could work on babies and have them come out well. Every “posted baby,” as we said, came to me.
Then I started to wonder why. Why is this done so often? Every suicide and homicide are reported to the medical examiner, as well as nearly every infant death. But why were some of these people autopsied, and not others? If we have five gunshot suicides in one week, why are four of them posted and one not? Why does a guy who shoots himself in the head need his stomach cut open? Why is the 3-month-old infant posted and the 6-month-old not?
The last posted baby I got had died of neglect, and it was obvious by the condition in which she was found. So why the autopsy? They could have taken photographs, fluid samples, other evidence from the scene. Why is the answer always to cut up the body?
I began to wonder about my thoughts regarding arrangements for my own body. I was fascinated by the whole process of reconstructing full posts; I figured if I were posted when I die, I could relive what I do. But now…I’m really not sure. I don’t like seeing people cut up unnecessarily. I don’t even like watching the pathologists do their job, because it has little to do with my job.
I began to dread the arduous task of treating the viscera and replacing it in the body cavity. If you are stuck with an autopsy repair by yourself, you’ve got the whole day cut out for you. It will take you possibly a good six hours. It’s exhausting, it’s messy, and you get sick. Autopsy chemicals are incredibly harsh. Your eyes water, your nose runs, your throat closes up and burns. If you’re like me, you get confused and disoriented and have to run out of the room every few minutes and get some fresh air. The bigger the person, the more chemicals you will use, and the longer the entire process will take.
I’m beginning to think I don’t want to be posted, no matter what. If you find me dead for no apparent reason, just get the blood work and maybe some organ biopsies. If you find me dead of an obvious suicide or homicide, just go with that theory. If it’s a gunshot to the chest, do you really need to know how far into which ventricle the bullet went? I’ll be dead. You do not need a pathologist’s report. It would take months to come back anyway.
A while ago I served a very large family who, after their mother’s funeral service, got a court order for an autopsy, against the wishes of other members of their family. It was quite an emotional experience, to take a woman who had been entrusted into my care, a woman I had embalmed and bathed and dressed and placed in a casket, and take her out of that casket, undress her, and send her off to a medical examiner’s office 50 miles away, not knowing when she would be back. Her empty casket and her flowers sat in the hall. I get very protective of my people. Finally, days later she was returned to me…all my work undone.
It was like nothing I had ever seen, and it was a horrible sight. I had no idea anyone could do this so extensively. There was not one part of her body, not one side, that was left alone. For what possible reason?
I put her back as she was. It took three people and two days to do so. But she looked as though it had never happened.
In the few days since then, since I started writing this, I have repaired four full posts. I have no idea why. This is something I am getting tired of seeing. I do not want this when I die.