I Smell Dead People

If you visit 'Bodies: The Exhibition' do so slowly, and with great care

The dead woman they've used for the fat exhibit—her body has been sliced vertically into four sections—had a polio shot some time during her life. It looks like the one on my dad's arm, which I puzzled over as a kid. I stare at the mark on her dead hide. The sign says that underneath is half-an-inch to three inches of fat.

Someone hugged this fat woman. Someone loved the way she had dimples at the base of her spine, the way her arms sloped from her shoulders. You can see her pores, you can see the folds in her neck. At some point, they shaved her skull, leaving no stubble.

'I'm standing six inches from a dead man's nose. I could lick his lips.'
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com
'I'm standing six inches from a dead man's nose. I could lick his lips.'


See also:
I See Dead Bodies
Photos from 'Bodies: The Exhibition'
by Staci Schwartz

They sawed her in half, and then sawed each section in half again. Mercifully, they sawed off her face, too. That way, as we consider her fatness, there's no face to confront, just her round thighs and chubby ankles.

"I'm eating salads from now on," says a trim, tall woman in tapered jeans and a green turtleneck. Her husband nods up and down, inches from the fat woman's squat, dead knees.

In the next room, we learn more about the health of one dead man. He had high blood pressure, which created a persistent lack of oxygen.

In the guest books available for comment in the final room, I read every word that's been written. Children seem to favor the dead babies exhibit, a room proceeded by a sign that warns, "Please pause a moment and consider if you wish to enter." A Chinese woman writes that it's "so weird" for her to see dead people from her country. An NYU professor references Rembrandt's "Anatomy Lesson," which depicts the "never-satisfied desire of the western gaze to consume the body." Nurses are grateful for the precision. Doctors say it's better than Gross Anatomy. High school kids say it's fun stoned. Tourists say it ruins the appetite. Teachers say it's too expensive, that the sponsor should consider special discounts.

In all the literature—neat anatomy books and the glossy exhibit brochure—though, there's no effort I can find to account for where the bodies came from.

This exhibit is expensive, but it's also a rare and powerful privilege, an interaction with the dead not to be taken lightly. Growing up, I used to hold my breath every time we drove by a cemetery. I helped a friend bury his dead snake. I cried with my sister when we ran over a family of raccoons.

But tonight, it's a lonely, vacant feeling. By 9 p.m., the place is nearly empty. The complimentary coat check is now staffed by the ticket-taker who calmed my nerves at the outset.

"Did you like it? " he asks, licking his lips. He's a large man, with waxy skin and a light haze of sweat on his brow. He invites me to McDonald's, but I decline.

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