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Rated: 13+ · Non-fiction · Death · #2127878
Does seeing more of something than most - in detail - make it easier to understand?
Any suggestions about flow and organization in particular would be extremely appreciated. I struggled with getting this one coherent and am worried the end is weak.



How do you define it?

How can you, really, when you're just eighteen years old and fresh out of high school. I've come to realize now, much older, that death is something you grow to understand with age. I'm not quite there yet.

I couldn't fathom it then, truly seeing it for the first time on the gurney. The sheet was pulled over in peaks and valleys of sterilized linen. Only the cloth smelled clean, though. The smell of death was impressed in everything else despite the polished steel and glinting tiles. Somehow the worst was the giant, cool room where they were stored, which somehow managed to smell like feet even if there was nothing inside.

That person was a human being, but now they weren't. Not really. They were treated with dignity as much as possible, because they were human once and there were still those who loved them. For what they represented, I understood. I knew maybe someday it would be me under that sheet, just not when.

Seeing the other side was something I was anxious about. I didn't sleep well the night before, fearing I would embarrass myself by vomiting or bursting into horrified tears as wounds were set into me that would never heal. I was told often women dealt better with it than men. I suppose most people are nervous right before seeing their first autopsy. Or if they aren't, then perhaps something is dreadfully wrong.

The inside of death was fascinating, I'll give you that. In an instant I was engaged with anatomy and learning facts about the human body. I was with another, also there to work for a few months, and we both made it through without fainting or bouts of hysteria. I think, looking back, we were both in shock. It may have been normal to see death in another time, but in our era, you'd only see it at a funeral where it's stiffly propped up and slathered with makeup. She, the other one, did not come back after that day. She never returned their calls. I wondered if I was special, somehow able to engage with this kind of work and be okay. Denial is a funny thing, and the weekend found me suddenly and bafflingly sobbing at the house of a family friend.

I went back, finished, and learned things that I am only now beginning to properly process and understand. I remember before working there, in your position I would have had a morbid curiosity for the details. After I left, I never had the stomach for gore or violence, especially where artificial. Seeing television showing accurate but graphic fantasy of the morgue, or horror films with meticulously-researched and anatomically correct gore turned my stomach and made me angry. Not because I had seen the real thing and worse, but because of the romance.

Seeing someone dead and possibly wounded horribly does not come with background music. It is not part of a story, it does not serve a purpose. There is nothing enthralling or palatable about it. It is not dramatic, it does not make life more interesting, and it does not draw you in. It repels you. It is instinctive, your desire to pull away from the feeling of cold static coming from an empty corpse. No, death is not romantic. Natural though it is, it is naked and vulgar. It just is, and it is there - cold, unabashed, and factual. Perhaps it's an agreeable veneer on something that would horrify us, but to me the hollow falseness amounted to nothing less than fetishizing it. That wasn't how it was, wasn't how it felt. It was...cheap and disrespectful, vaguely self-serving and sadistic.

It took me years to process, and some unpleasant smells took on new contexts that would pull me back years later. I had gained firsthand understanding of how complex, robust, and yet fragile my body was. I had seen how the smallest thing in the wrong place could dispatch me, while also seeing the extent of damage and disease I was capable of enduring. I developed a nagging sense that my death could be around any corner, becoming slightly more impulsive for a few years. I spoke of it, so far as I was ethically able to, often, trying to process and put together what I suppose I hadn't been quite ready for. Some time later a friend suggested it was perhaps irresponsible not to give any kind of entry or exit counselling in such a program. I couldn't say one way or the other.

I know where I am today is not where I'll be years later. My thoughts and supposed understandings change and evolve as I gain more insight, experience, and as a result, context. I reached an important distinction: I understand how I feel about death, but I don't understand it. Having seen more of it doesn't mean I don't lie awake sometimes, wondering why people have to die. Knowing it's natural doesn't mean I'm any less concerned about the well-being of myself and those I care about. It never means I don't grieve. I've long thought a system can't comprehend itself, and I suspect that maybe understanding what death is - completely - is impossible. That doesn't mean we don't try; I think it's impossible for us not to. Death and birth will be the great mysteries to haunt science forever.

Seeing it inside and out has given me more perspective. It caused me to think about it more often and earlier than most people around me. But I can say without any doubt that I don't understand death any better for it. I'm just less fearful of the evidence.
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