07/22/2011 10:01 am ET | Updated Sep 21, 2011

Epiphany By Anatomy: How Seeing a Dead Body Helped Me Understand Life

"Wanna see the anatomy lab?" he asked, beaming, as we finished our walk through campus.

I was visiting a friend who had just finished up his first year of medical school at Brown University, and he had spent the better part of the last few months laboring daily in the lab. Figuring a brief stop in would parallel the time I showed him my D.C. office, I said sure. A quick glance around a sterile basement lab, "So this is where you work, huh," and we'd be off to lunch.

We walked down the stairs of the concrete block building, briskly making our way through a maze of archaic fire doors and empty classrooms. I looked through one window and noticed some bones and skulls on a shiny metal table, but we kept moving. We turned right and entered a small room that contained the same tables. Instead of animal bones, on top were giant, zipped-up plastic bags.

"So you're sure you're okay seeing this?" he asked. It occurred to me right then that no, in fact, "seeing the anatomy lab" would be nothing like his visit to my bland, fluorescent-lit non-profit headquarters in Washington. Without missing a beat, so as not to betray the knot forming in my stomach, I replied, "Yea, of course."

As he unzipped one of the bags, releasing the putrid smell of formaldehyde, he explained that inside was a cadaver whose skin had been surgically sliced open and whose organs had been removed and examined by other students earlier in the semester. But don't worry, he said, everything was placed back where it belonged, so we'd have an opportunity to explore all the parts. He put on gloves, and peeled back the skin covering the chest cavity, and proceeded to remove the lungs, heart and some of the intestines. Sensing perhaps that I had seen enough, he reassembled it all, folded back the skin, and zipped up the bag. Just as I thought we would leave, a couple five-gallon buckets caught his eye. He smiled wide and asked if I wanted to see more. "Sure!" I replied eagerly, if disingenuously, as the room seemed to be warming up rapidly. "Absolutely!"

He reached into the black bucket with one hand and quickly pulled out a brownish-gray spongey looking piece of flesh, with a long black tail swinging from its bottom. He pointed out the different parts of the brain, showed me where the spinal cord attaches, and explained how they function together to control movement. Placing the brain back in its plastic home, he moved to the next bucket and pulled out a couple pairs of lungs, and as he was telling me everything he had learned, I realized that my breathing for the past 20 minutes had been labored. I became a bit lightheaded. "Time for lunch, eh?" I said a bit assertively, and we headed out to grab some food. And at least a couple drinks.

This was by far my most vivid experience with death and the fragile human body. Never before had I been so close to a dead body unadorned with embalming fluids and inches of makeup, much less buckets of lifeless organs. It's difficult not to be crass, but everything I saw vulgarly resembled animal meat, from the dry skin that had a leathery look and texture, to the brains and lungs that once animated human beings but now resembled something you wouldn't ever purchase from the butcher.

A couple months before this visit to the lab, my grandmother had been diagnosed with an aggressive but treatable form of lung cancer. I was devastated when I heard the news, but optimistic with the reports from doctors. Cancer, the body and medicine were an abstraction to me. But when a cancerous lung was laid on a table in front of me, it was suddenly more concrete.

Sickness and death are not daily on the minds of most 20-something Americans today in a way that they were as recently as a few generations ago. Wellness is packaged and commoditized, and there is an ethos that says we are the ultimate masters of our bodies. We're promised eternal youth and immortality if we eat well, exercise, take this supplement and drink that super juice. The reality of sickness and inevitable death are rarely mentioned.

When I looked into buckets of brains and lungs, it occurred to me just how miraculous the living human body actually is. A renowned Bible professor once told our class that his son, a prominent evolutionary biologist, assured him that the wonders of life can all be explained by science and that there is no need for any divine explanation. Though I defer to the likes of my teacher's son in matters of science, I still cannot believe that there is not something miraculous going on in our bodies. That flesh somehow enables human beings to reason, emote, move, love, write, think, pray and learn is baffling. That the organs in those buckets, now foul-smelling and discolored, once gave life to living, breathing people is beyond my rational or emotional understanding.

I'm unsure if I had a religious experience in that lab, but those 20 minutes were nothing short of epiphanic. Though trite, seeing dismembered organs made me understand quite powerfully that individually, human beings are greater than the sum of their parts. Why that is remains a mystery, a mystery that neither science nor faith alone can answer.

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