Cadaver Lab

Cadaver Lab

Nowhere but in cadaver lab is it acceptable
Or legal
to cut apart human bodies, touch and handle their organs, and have conversation over them.

Nowhere but in cadaver lab
Have I felt
Uneasy about sharing a space with the bodies of the dead.

Nowhere but cadaver lab
Have I been scared to go alone
Or worried I’m doing wrong
Or afraid of disrespecting
a body lived in, loved, and now dead.


A bubbly, short second-year student leads my group of 4 to a table, where she happily explains the rules.
“You have to keep the body wet with wetting solution and paper towels!”
What a concept.
“And throw excess tissue in the tissue buckets,”
Body tissue.

Needless to say,
I am apprehensive.
Dead bodies should be buried, safe and sound, in the ground.

That’s what I think as I walk out on orientation day.


Oh my goodness.
We have to cut open this man’s chest.

He is small, pale, and frail,
He died at 87 years old.

“Let’s call him Greg,” says Catherine.
“Or any name… I don’t mind…” she backtracks.

“Well, who’ll make the first cut?”


“I’ll do it,” says Umer.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll go next.”
I’d better face my fears.

Umer makes his cut.

We peel back the donor’s skin,
And I’m shocked.

Shocked by the textures
Of the fascia
And muscles.

I’ve never seen anything
More beautiful
Than this.

The books have lied.
They never mentioned
That external intercostal muscles
Shimmer in the light.

Nor the marvelous way nerves, arteries, and veins
Run like rivers
Along the mountains and valleys
Of our posterior chest wall

“Time is up! Group B is here. Clean up your stations and wet down the bodies.”

I can’t believe it.
I have to leave?

But nowhere but in cadaver lab
Is it acceptable
Or legal
To learn the human body in this way!

Needless to say,
Cadaver lab becomes
My new favorite place.

Because nowhere but in cadaver lab
Do I learn as quickly
What a heart feels like sitting in my hand
Or how a lung expands
Like a sponge filled with air

We’re made of carbon?
Like clay and dust?
Then what keeps me alive?
What makes my mind awake and free?

Tell me, is there anywhere but cadaver lab
Where the living and the dead
Interact through careful touch?
And spur intelligent conversation?
Where we, the living, can engage with those who’ve passed, in a way that is “normal,” and not sad?

I still believe a body should rest in the ground.
But some people
Choose to let their bodies
Take a longer route.

They gift us with knowledge
Of anatomy
And of mortality
And of ourselves.

Nowhere but in cadaver lab
Have I experienced anything
Like that.

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