by Stephen Crippen
I look at Ash Wednesday as a kind of self-absorbed Day of the Dead, or an All Souls Day that’s focused mostly on me. I’m dead, or at least I’m dying. And not just dead or dying in a spiritual way—dying to sin, or dying to a way of life that diminishes me or harms others. I have all of Lent to focus on those deaths. No, Ash Wednesday for me is a day to say, I am someday (2065? Next year? Tomorrow?) going to be dead. My body will cool, stiffen, soften, be consumed by Mother Earth or Father Fire, better get my will ready.
So my first book for Lent this year is “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers,” by Mary Roach. She’s a journalist, and she approaches the topic with a great blend of thorough professionalism and funny irreverence. And right there in the first chapter is a great Ash Wednesday story. Roach is visiting a medical lab in which plastic-surgery students are practicing surgery techniques using the severed heads of cadavers. Roach is talking to one of the students, named Marilena:
“I ask Marilena if she plans to donate her remains. I have always assumed that a sense of reciprocity prompts doctors to donate—repayment for the generosity of the people they dissected in medical school. Marilena, for one, isn’t going to. She cites a lack of respect. It surprises me to hear her say this. As far as I can tell, the heads are being treated [by her classmates] with respect. I hear no joking or laughter or callous comments…”
Marilena tells the author that she objects to her colleagues’ assumption that it’s okay to photograph the cadavers for journals and research. Since the people who once inhabited these bodies are gone, they can’t sign a release for the photos to be taken, and this is what Marilena finds disrespectful. Roach continues:
“The seminar is nearly over. The video monitors are blank and the surgeons are cleaning up and filing out into the hallway. Marilena replaces the white cloth on her cadaver’s face; about half the surgeons do this. She is conscientiously respectful. When I asked her why the eyes of the dead woman had no pupils, she did not answer, but reached up and closed the eyelids. As she slides back her chair, she looks down at the benapkined form and says, ‘May she rest in peace.’ I hear it as ‘pieces,’ but that’s just me.”
The Irishman in me smiled at the author’s play on words, but I really like Marilena. I hope that when it’s my body’s turn to be a research subject, it will be handled by someone like her. And I hope that by keeping Ash Wednesday and walking through Lent each year, I can become more and more like her, more and more the kind of person who remembers to replace a white cloth over the sacred remains of another human being.
Stephen is a therapist and postulant to the Diaconate. You can find his personal blog on his website, here.