October 7, 2015
On the brink of turning 40, I was proud of my slim athletic body, but it failed to meet every goal I’d imagined. I had never danced on Broadway, attracted a mate, or bore children.
As a single woman, I took a solid job in a senior center in New York—far from my Midwestern family. Working as a recreational therapist, I witnessed my clients’ decline. And then I came down with a respiratory infection that left me homebound and broke with adult-onset asthma. Breathless, I secretly feared dying alone with two cats and no measurable accomplishments.
In bed, I devoured a book about financial health. One chapter suggested selling plasma, but I knew from college how plasma needles left track marks in my tiny veins. I considered egg donation, but my ovaries were too old. When I stumbled upon a section about scientific body donation, I was intrigued by the savings and posthumous altruism. If people could change trajectory by donating kidneys, what was the return on a whole cadaver?
I googled “anatomical donation,” a frugal choice that could ease the burden on future caretakers. Instead of traditional funereal preparation, which I couldn’t afford, I read that most university hospitals pay transportation and cremation costs if donors died locally. My disposal could be my final statement, my karmic debt paid to the world in full.
I selected New York University Langone Medical Center. In the information kit was a letter signed by Dr. Melvin Rosenfeld, Associate Dean for Medical Education, which emphasized thankfulness and practicality. I tried to imagine the man whose sincerity poked through otherwise trite phrases like “deeply grateful.” I visualized a serious character with dry wit, a nutty professor with a technical voice who wrote: ”This program, established for the purpose of scientific research and medical education, provides important support for our undergraduate medical school education programs.” I liked this Dr. Rosenfeld and let his persona guide me through the signup process.
Paperwork required two witnesses. Because my end-of-life matters were too heavy to impose on friends, I reluctantly presented the packet to my sensible, Protestant parents in Indiana. My mother, a retired teacher, dutifully wrote her name. My father, a business owner, rolled his eyes, making fun of my latest hippie idea. When Dad signed, I felt validated as an adult.
I gave them copies of my non-binding plan to be dismembered, analyzed, and incinerated. Now my parents needed to take me seriously. But if I were to die before my family, I had no proof they would carry out my wishes. Then I concluded if I were dead, I would be beyond tantrums. On a visit home, Mom and Dad showed me where they stored their will. I paid attention, for the first time.
In the following months, I wondered how far I could research death while still alive. If I hunted down unsavory details, I theorized fewer regrets. I called Dr. Rosenfeld, wanting to meet the man behind the anatomical donation letter. When I asked for a tour, his assistant laughed and put me on hold. When she returned, she said, “Dr. Rosenfeld would love to give you a tour of the anatomy lab.”
“I was expecting someone who looked older,” said Dr. Rosenfeld when we met. With a firm handshake and head of gray hair, he appeared to be a cool Jewish uncle. He wore blue jeans and crisp button-down shirt. ”In my 40 of years working here, you are the first donor who wanted to see the labs.”
He showed me display cases filled with artificial organs. When we reached the anatomy lab, the scene was professional with staff checking body bags on long metal tables. I saw the flash of a skinned right leg before an attendant zipped it out of view. For a second, I considered a selfie, but the lump in my throat prevented me. These bundles contained actual human beings. I had the privilege of being a witness.
Each body was precious, according to Dr. Rosenfeld. Six medical students shared each body and examined torso, pelvis, head, and limbs, Dr. Rosenfeld said. Once the study was finished, they organized a memorial service. While students forgot other courses, they remembered gross anatomy because instructors imparted medical knowledge with the passion of grandparents to grandchildren, he told me. Bonds between cadaver, learner, and educator were forever. “No model or fetal pig can compare to the experience of holding a real human heart,” he said. They would be holding my heart. I started to cry. He handed me a stack of napkins.
“When you cut open a human body, there’s so much variability,” he said. “People look so different from each other on the outside. You would think they would be more uniform on the inside, but they are so unique.”
To me, this explained my distinctions—how I could have Mom’s hazel eyes and Dad’s height without inhering their gift of being successful. Like them, I was sensitive and curious. Unlike them, I had asthma and an inability to think linearly.
These traits would die with me, but now my body would live out my best intentions.
Even if no one claimed me, NYU would transfer me to Hart Island. Just off of the east coast of the Bronx, the island is the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. More than one million dead are buried there. I would never be alone.
Filled with new conviction, I spoke about death to close friends. My pal Tim, a no-nonsense Brit, loved my description of Dr. Rosenfeld and thought the lab sounded like a nice place.
“Aren’t you scared?” a colleague asked. “Do you know what they’re going to do to you?” I did. When I mentioned my investigations to first dates, I measured their reactions. If the guy was disgusted, I didn’t want to see him again, fearing he was in denial of an inevitable event. One, a radiologist, had his own near death experience. I loved that we could talk so openly about what he saw and felt. We never went out again, not because of our conversation, but because I thought he had a creepy interest in birds.
In November, Dr. Rosenfeld invited me to a cadaver memorial at the medical school. When I arrived at the auditorium, the president of the class of 2017 asked if I was a family member. A handsome young man with sensitive eyes, he offered me a boutonnière.
“Actually, I’m a future body,” I told him, waving away the purple flower.
“Really?” a classmate said. “I admire you. I could never do that.”
A female student guided me to the buffet table where I saw Dr. Rosenfeld, whom I now called “Mel.”
“Mel!” I said hugging him. “We got to stop meeting like this.”
Inside the auditorium, the class president gave the opening remarks. He described his respect for his ”lady,” how as he cut into her external carotid artery, he and fellow students talked about their futures. What kind of medicine were they going into? Would they have kids? He mentioned months and years of doubt, when he and classmates took their first courses and wondered if they could do it. Now, they were a month away from becoming doctors, I was proud of these strangers, to whom I felt connected. They could have been my biological children.
Other students mentioned how protective they felt about their bodies, how defensive they became if anyone said an unkind word. One student read a poem he had written, comparing the lab to heaven. Another played the piano. When it was time for family members to speak, the word I kept hearing was “grateful.”
Afterward, I called my British pal Tim and told him about my research. “They had a funeral for the bodies?” Tim asked. “That’s wonderful. I would like your anatomy guy’s number.” I wrote Dr. Rosenfeld to thank him and mention my new recruit. Making plans for death wasn’t morbid. It was helping me make sense of my life.