Jenna Post CC
Rooms Of The Dead
So many in the rooms of the dead. In North Carolina, in Chapel Hill. In Evanston (a suburb of Chicago), and in Chicago itself, near downtown, at the Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital.
In North Carolina the room for the dead was located in the basement, street level, so the morticians could wheel the bodies out into their gleaming Cadillac hearses pulled up in back, usually after dark.
In the room of the dead there stands my father, my gentle father, who said the rooms of the dead were made to honor the dead and to honor life. You needed to determine the cause of death, so that the survivors can know and the doctors can know and learn to improve their treatments. The rooms of the dead serve knowledge and life.
It is five in the morning; I can hear the cars out on the bypass — the sound, like ghosts in the distance keening. Last night I passed a major accident on Highway 21 driving home to College Station from Austin. I counted two ambulances and four police cars, and now I have woken in the dark of early morning from dreams of the rooms of the dead.
The year was 1954. I am in the fourth grade. I see graffiti scribbled in black on the highway overpasses in Chapel Hill “Kill Joe McCarthy.” Yet a liberal spirit finds a small voice here in this university town. The story is that the Yankee General lodged his horses in some of the ivy colored building on the University of North Carolina campus. My father explains how while an undergraduate in pre-med, he worked as a soda jerk in the University of Iowa Union, and if there’d been more slack time and he’d sat down a longer time at the Communist meeting in the large room across the hall, even for twenty minutes, he could, during the McCarthy era, have been fired from his job.
Even though Chapel Hill is a university town, outside the city my father points out the pro-McCarthy signs. I sometimes get beat up for being a Yankee on the way home from school. My classmates shout at me, “Save your confederate money, the South will rise again.”
One afternoon in the spring the school calls us back to the cafeteria for an assembly. The principal says that the Supreme Court has ruled that children, whatever their skin colors, must go to school together.
“How do you feel about going to school with Negroes? How do you feel about drinking from the same water fountain?”
When the principal calls for a vote, the children overwhelmingly vote to go to school with Negroes. They have been brought up to share. The principal tries to remain calm but it’s clear he is shocked. He explains the situation again in a more nervous voice. The children vote again with raised hands to share the school.
A university town. One of the most liberal towns in the South in the early 1950’s. My father is called down to the hospital on a Sunday. My mother does not want me around, so I go with my dad to the hospital. He is in a hurry and takes me into the room of the dead. This is a new university hospital. The refrigerator units that hold the bodies have gleaming chrome doors and the tables where they examine the bodies are shiny aluminum.
My mother is an anesthesiologist, a doctor like my father.
“Don’t take him in there,” she has said. “He’s too young.”
“It’s good for him,” my father replied. “He needs to know about death.”
My mother has given up on her medical practice. She stays at home in our Glen Lennox apartment, talking long hours on the phone with her father in Minnesota.
She hates the muggy heat of Chapel Hill and the closed-in feeling of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A maid comes twice a week. Sometimes I go to the maid’s house for the day and play with her two boys. I am shocked at the condition of her house and the houses up and down the dirt road where we play kick the can. The houses on the street have holes in the walls that are mostly glued over with newspaper. I am surprised to see how the street contains only black people and how I am the only white child, but what do I know? I am nine years old.
My father, in a hurry on a Sunday morning, takes me down to the morgue. Dad has received an emergency call from the coroner to ascertain the cause of death. We find girl my age lying dead on the morgue table. She is pretty girl, and her face is calm, but her body and arms are burned. She is a Negro girl who has died in a fire. I am stunned.
“If you ever see fire, just run,” my father says. “Get out immediately. Don’t take anything.” He goes to a small desk in the corner of the room to fill out papers. “Go play in the hallway,” he says. “I won’t be long.”
So many times with my father in the rooms of the dead. I am twelve and we are back living in the North in a western suburb of Chicago and I have come down on a Saturday to my father’s work — he always worked six days a week —come down because my mother wanted me out of the house.
“He’s a boy,” she says. “He makes too many demands. He drives me crazy. He needs to be with his father.”
I don’t remember what I am doing to kill time while my father worked. Perhaps I was strolling through, as I often did, the Pathology Lab’s museum of monsters (as I called it) — large wood cabinets, eight feet tall with tall glass doors. So many brown cabinets in the old section with high ceilings, and in the cabinets, hundreds and hundreds of glass “crocks” or containers filled with the preservative formaldehyde, and in the see-through crocks specimens of abnormalities. Two headed babies, babies joined at the back and sharing a heart, babies joined at the head, their brains lopsided into one big brain — all floating in the glass crocks for eternity. I am in shock, I am in awe. I don’t have the words yet for my feelings Today I can ask, do they not have souls? Why are they put on display instead of buried? I do not have words but I sense that if God is the designer, he must not be a perfect god, for his hands have slipped, at times, in the challenge of making.
My father calls my name. I turn and see him coming out of the morgue. He has removed his rubber gloves but still has on a white apron speckled with blood.
“You’ve got to see this,” he says. “I don’t let you go in here much, but you’ve got to see this.”
I enter the morgue, the room of the dead. It’s an older style morgue compared to the hospital in North Carolina. The refrigerator doors are made of wood and the tabletops are pinkish-white marble. Stretched out on the table is a tall, large muscled man. So far they have not cut into him. Senior doctors and residents and interns from all over the hospital have come to look at the man. I’ve never seen so many in the morgue. They are staring at the man, who looks to be about fifty years old. He is from the Ringling Brothers Circus that has been playing in Chicago for a month, and his body is covered with tattoos — up and down his arms and legs, over his back and chest and stomach. Everything is tattoo, except his face, hands, feet, and genitals.
I am fascinated and shocked. There’s a sticky sweet smell in the room. I want to study the man’s body as you might examine a painting in a museum. I want to figure out what the tattoos on his body mean. A white-coated doctor points at his side and says, “Jonah and the whale,” but I can’t look. Something says it’s wrong to treat the dead like a freak show. I don’t know the word desecration yet but that is what I am feeling. But another feeling comes and whispers, ‘No, no, it is all right. This is honoring the man.’
By the time I start college we have moved to a suburb north of Chicago, Evanston. Now my mother never leaves the house. She rarely comes out of the bedroom. My father gets my sister up in the morning for school and prepares breakfast. During the summers I work at the hospital to make money for college. I sometimes help still my dad with autopsies. He will hand me a scalpel and I will slice open an abdomen. I will remove the liver and hand it to my father to be weighed on a scale. I will remove the intestines for examination and weighing. I will pack the empty torso with balled up newspaper and sew the skin back with suture. I will take an electric saw, and after peeling back the scalp, cut a door in the skull to take out the brain for examination and weighing. Did this person have a stroke or a tumor? It was my father’s job to find out. My father tells me never to talk of his work.
“They won’t understand,” my father said. “They will not comprehend that this is science. It will seem lurid and ghoulish.”
While helping my father in the rooms of the dead I would stare at the faces, trying to make out the meaning of death, or the personality before me, but without words and motion, the faces say little. All kinds of people come through the rooms of the dead — mostly the old, but sometimes the young. All colors. All faiths. They are together, rolled in and out on trays from the refrigerator units built into a wall for holding bodies. One time I remember my dad getting a call in the middle of the night because the electrical power in the morgue had failed.
I’ve never needed to read Stephen King novels, I’ve never felt the urge to slow down on a highway to gape at those injured or killed in automobile accidents. I have no desire to watch horror movies and have never seen Arnold Schwarzenegger as the robot who kills for good in the Terminator movies. When angry men tried to pick a fight in a bar, I have been able to walk away.
I’ve been around boys and young men fascinated with killing and death. I have known young men who could not believe they were men until they killed their first buck. I have known a veteran, son of an air force colonel, who believed he was not a man because he refused to carry out the lieutenant’s order to kill Vietcong prisoners captured on patrol in the jungle. This veteran would sit on the sofa of my living room, drinking beer after beer in an alcoholic haze, and tell me he would kill to prove himself a man someday. Two years later he killed a man, shooting him in the back of the head.
I feel so lucky. I was jarred awake by dreams early in this morning, but now it is close to noon, and I am typing what I’ve scribbled in longhand in the still darkened bedroom. I always keep a pad by the side of the bed. My wife has gone to work and I’ve taken my daughter to school. Last night I got a call from my son Will and talked to my grandchildren Kenda and Quinlin. I am so fortunate.
I never saw what my grandfather Hall spoke of, how the bodies of loved one who died at home were washed by a family members in preparation for burial, but I went to the room of death when I was young, unlike the young today who romanticize death playing video games or watching movies. I saw the blood being washed from the morgue tables down the drain. My hands felt the cold stiff flesh. I struggled to straighten arms and legs. When civilians and soldiers are burned or bombed on the streets of Baghdad or in the capital of Liberia or in a bar in Paris or Bali or Baltimore, I see the faces. Death has never seemed to me romantic or heroic. The smell of death is unforgettable. When near the dead you take in part of them with the smell. Early I learned a bit of compassion. I have been in the rooms of the dead and in my own way I have played the silver taps, as they do every year at my favorite Texas A&M ceremony. I never became the doctor, yet thanks to father — the pathologist — I learned in the rooms of the dead.
Chuck Taylor was a chemistry nerd in high school and did research into diet and heart disease. He started out as a PhD in renaissance
literature teaching Shakespeare. Later he switches to creative writing and has published two memoirs, two novels, two short story collection, and eight books of poetry. He collects stamps and performs magic at children's birthday parties.
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