I Smell Dead People


Outside an exhibit of the dead, a ticket for which is $24.50, you will encounter the following: The Gap, a Baby Gap, a Guess store, Brookstones, The Body Shop, J. Crew, and a boldly-lettered sandwich board for the Buskers Hall of Fame. There is one entry on that board.

The attraction, “Bodies: The Exhibition,” takes up the corner of a downtown shopping plaza, a museum in a mall across from the South Street Seaport. Posters promise real human bodies.

In the distance, old ships bob in the moonlight. The Fulton Fish Market is abandoned. I notice the Heartland Brewery. On a grim, bitter Sunday night, the lights look inviting. There’s beer in there.

On the corner of the building, there’s a brass fish bolted to the fresh concrete and brick. The fish feels like a committee decision, bearing all the signs of “fish-ness” but lacking any likeness to famous fish, like cod or striped bass.

“They say this is Christmas,” that song where all the Western musicians wonder if Africans know about Santa, is playing on outdoor speakers. There’s a flabby, 100-foot holiday tree mounted in the mall’s square.

Before I brave the exhibit, I stop to observe other attempts at the human form. These are headless, wrapped in pink cotton and denim imported from Hong Kong or India. It’s the Gap, and even without the heads, they still capture an athleticism that I understand is also a goal for “Bodies”—what we look like, want to look like, should look like.

I enter the store and start taking notes. This act catches the attention of three employees, who triangulate. “Do you need help?” a manager asks, and I nod my head no, scribbling.

The exhibit takes up a series of darkened rooms filled with cadavers. “I’m a little nervous,” I admit to the ticket-taker. “Don’t be,” he says, “it’s really quite clinical.”

He tells me it’ll take me a half-hour if I hate it, two to three hours if I love it.

The first room gives off a vague, waxy smell. The first skeleton with tissue preserved is giving a thumbs-up. There are real eyeballs and ears. This is a real human body. I’m standing six inches from a dead man’s nose. I could lick his lips. I really want to leave.

The body never lies, a sign says.

The eyebrows of the dead man are arranged as if he were calmly taking a football for some extra yards. A strip of black tape is a half-hearted effort to mask the brand of the ball, Nike.

My intention to eavesdrop on the other museum-goers seems like it will be derailed by the German and French speakers, who seem to dominate the audience for the exhibit.

Dust or sweater fluff dances in the warmed, track-lighted air, the weightless, visible stuff nearing the flattened, dead lips of the preserved man in front of me. I stare at the toe nails and nuggets of each toe’s joints.

The heat blower disturbs the fat of one cadaver, who has been flayed in such a way as to reveal his muscles. He’s setting up for a jump shot. I pause to stare, my stomach tightening, and I notice that, barely perceivable, the entire dead body is listing back and forth in the hot breeze, the dead tissues warming in the bright glare, giving off the sweet smell of dead meat, fat, and bone.

Is this OK?

A blind man sits next to a gentle-looking older woman, who is describing the exhibit in tender Spanish. They sit with their hands folded in their laps, resting in these chairs in the shadows, talking in a room filled with almost 600 pounds of dead meat.

Near one of the dead men, a live one from one of the outer Boroughs is describing an injury he suffered to his Achilles tendon. His companions, three small women with dark hair and bright lips, all listen as he gestures at the dead foot. “I was walking on the beach and it snapped,” he said. “It hurts to this day.”

In a glass case the size of a dinner table, one dead man’s spinal and nervous system has been completely ripped from its natural moorings and is spread out under the harsh glow. It’s repulsive, resembling a giant, goose-grey 100-legged waterbug. This lies deep within all of us, but just this once, we’re witness to it naked and pinned.

Soon I enter a darkened room, where dozens of cases filled with fluid hold entire sections of the body’s arterial system. They resemble sea creatures, or jungle blooms, these iridescent red structures. Close up, you can see many of the systems are deteriorating. The glass cases bear the weight of no tide, but the liquid seems to move, and at the bottom are the light dustings and more significant chunks of dead veins and arterial connections. A fresh bit drifts down, glittering and fluttering.

Where is the puke bucket? It’s nearing 7 p.m., and guests are using cell phones to secure dinner reservations. One couple in neat, matching windbreakers bicker over which restaurant to visit. He resolves to leave, saying he’ll meet her at the bar. She stares at a cancerous thyroid in a glass case, nearly three times the size of the healthy organ to its rear.

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.

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.