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Finding life's meaning in death

Students in a college class visit the dead, the dying and convicted murderers. Along the way, they learn to value what they have.

September 03, 2008|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

UNION, N.J. — The dead man lies naked on a metal table, a small cloth covering his groin, mouth open, arms rigid and cocked.

A blue-gloved autopsy technician thrusts a hefty razor into his chest, unzipping his brown skin to reveal a thick layer of yolk-colored fat. He pulls marbled meat from the bone.

The man was 30, an only son, married, a father of three. Around 9:40 p.m. the night before, someone shot him in the head. Now, a technician at the New Jersey Medical Examiner's Office in Newark is holding his lungs, tar-speckled as if covered with spores of mold.

Rebecca Schmidt, 21, a ponytailed biology major, stands over the body, alongside a dozen of her Kean University classmates midway through the eight-week summer course Death in Perspective.

"They're looking for the bullet; come see," says Professor Norma Bowe, 49.

Schmidt leans in, captivated by the disfigured ball of metal lodged above his left ear. She breathes through her mask sprayed with perfume, which does little to block the smell of death: feces and rotten eggs.

This is so cool, she thinks. Schmidt has seen death plenty of times, but never the inside of a corpse.

For the last decade, Bowe has led her classes of 30 students into the refrigerated tombs of bodies stacked bunk-bed-style in the morgue and into hospice bedrooms, glowing from television screens, occupied by the sickly and soon-to-die. She guides them through the barbed-wire fences of Northern New Jersey State Penitentiary, past the outdoor recreation kennels where gang members sweat and swear, to a law library where they sit down with murderers.

Her students are from suburban small towns and inner cities. They enroll in Bowe's class because they are curious about her unusual field trips. But something more powerful also draws them here: a need to know how we die, and why. What happens to our bodies, and is there such a thing as the soul?

The poet and philosopher Khalil Gibran once wrote:

You would know the secret of death.

But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?

Bowe guides her students by this principle. There is a three-year waiting list to get into the class.

"This is his tongue," another autopsy technician tells the students, pulling out the slimy bundle of muscles of a 73-year-old man sprawled on a table next to the gunshot victim. His face is peeled from his skull, forehead folded in a flap over his stubbled chin. The medical examiner's report said he had been distraught over his wife's recent death and hanged himself in his garage.

A young woman fights tears. Other students turn away. After a few minutes, three leave.

One by one, more exit, until three are left. One is Schmidt.

On the floor next to her feet, the shooting victim's belongings lie strewn across a white sheet: a tangerine and red flame-colored T-shirt and sneakers that match, a blood-soaked white undershirt, four packs of Newport cigarettes, a few dozen MetroCards for the subway, $211 in cash.

As a volunteer emergency medical technician, Schmidt has looked into the eyes of people dying as she gave them CPR. It's weird, Schmidt says, to feel their bones crush beneath her palms as she tries to press life into their chests.

It's not the sight of someone's blood, or broken body, or last breath that disturbs her. What Schmidt can't understand is why, in those moments when death is before her and her adrenaline is pumping, she cannot bring herself to feel truly sad.

"OK, guys, gather up," Bowe tells the students outside the coroner's office. "Any thoughts?"

The students stay hushed.

"Say something," Bowe says.

The woman who had been on the verge of tears breaks down.

"Come here," Bowe says, hugging her, as Schmidt and the others watch.

"It's good to be alive, right?" Bowe says. "Did you notice how fragile we are? We have no business taking our lives for granted."

It is a Monday in May, the first class of summer session. Bowe's assignment: "Write a goodbye letter to someone or something you have lost."

"Go where it's scary," Bowe says, "go where you don't want to."

Schmidt, a former athlete, shifts in her seat. Seeing dead people? No problem. Delving into her emotions? Not so simple. There is a science to ignoring.

Something happened to her when she was 15. It's her secret, and it changed her. At 16, she signed up to be an EMT. Her first call: a dead man who had been in bed for two weeks, decomposing.

"People look at me like 'How can you do this?' " Schmidt says. "I wonder, 'Am I too cold?' "

The class members introduce themselves: "I'm a psych major," says Vatasha Daniels, a baby-faced 22-year-old. She lost someone seven years ago, but she's not ready to admit this to everyone.

"I took this class," Daniels says, "because I felt like it would just be interesting."

Next to Daniels sits 24-year-old Danielle Pante, who seems unflappable as she tells her story: "I lost my mom when I was 4. Two years later my dad's girlfriend died of cancer. In high school, I lost three of my friends -- two car accidents and one OD."

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