Touring a Colombian Morgue

Posted: November 24, 2010 in Uncategorized
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…and a grotesque reminder of why, even though we metal fans sing of death, it’s actually not cool at all.

A few years back, when an intimate friend working in forensics in Bogota offered me a tour of a Colombian morgue, I accepted without delay. Metal fans spend their whole lives singing about macabre topics, so why not see it in person, I reasoned? I saved the date on my calendar and, in the mix of everything going on between work and life in the bustling Colombian capital, a city of 9 million that practically never slumbers, I didn’t think much more of it until the day finally arrived.

I got up early, ate breakfast, and headed to the gym. The morning began normally enough, with the exception that I found myself making light-hearted jokes about death the day long. In hindsight, this was probably equal parts an attempt to level my nerves. Luckily, because of their historical experience with death, Colombians are a good crowd for this variant of humor noir. But not all of them. At the gym, panting between sets of pull-ups, I told one of the staff members what I planned for later in the day. A typical middle-class Colombian who has seen the effects the country’s long internal conflict has had on his paisanos, and who would rather avoid anything related to death altogether because of that historical memory, to say he seemed slightly perplexed at my plans to go see stiffs would be an understatement.

My friend picked me up later in the day from work. She ran me through the check list of what to expect and how to handle myself once we got there. “It’s going to stink. That’s a combination of the flesh and chemicals used in the autopsies. It will take you some time to get used to it, but eventually you will, so don’t barf and embarrass me. You will have to wear a body suit and some booties that can be hot and uncomfortable, but this is to make sure your clothes don’t reek when you leave. And since I’m taking you for pizza after this, I’d rather you didn’t smell like a corpse. Even if you do, just take a shower and wash your clothes, and you’ll be fine. You may continue to smell it for a few days, but that’s just because the smell sticks to your nose hairs. It could also be psychological; seeing a lot of bodies, some of which were murdered and most of which are in various stages of decay and are getting cut up by the lab techs, makes an impression and some people think they still smell it later. But it’s probably not real. Finally, if you feel like you’re getting sick or going down, let me know. There’s no shame in it. Some people can’t take the sights and smells too well. Don’t be a tough guy. I’ve been seeing stiffs for years and sometimes it still bothers even me. If you feel light-headed, and especially if you start seeing spots, please tell me.”

My first impressions and experiences upon entering the facility?

The stench was, at first, difficult to take. I wore three face masks (at the urging of my friend, “just to be sure”) and I could still smell the flesh-chem combination. I was chewing sugarless Wrigley’s and even this seemed to eventually taste of rotten flesh. But I did get used to it, though not as quickly as I hoped.

The cadavers didn’t look like real people, who had once lived and breathed and who had entertained aspirations and hopes and who had families and lovers like the rest of us. They bore the lifeless resemblance of a store mannequins. I used to think Hollywood missed the mark in death scenes; but as it turned out, Hollywood approximates corpses almost perfectly. Zombie movies are probably the closest example to illustrate the point. The only thing that made the corpses at the morgue look real to me – at least, the pre-autopsy ones – was when a lab tech would turn a body on its side, and the mouth would spill open dumping blood and bile into a pool under the head. The pool would slowly coagulate until another tech would pass by, notice the mess, and clean it up. Or, if the body was already opened at the thorax for autopsy, he would cup the thickening puddle of goo in his hand, placing it back into the body. Otherwise, they were motionless rubber prop dummies.

There were so many bodies arriving that the staff worked in 24-hour shifts as a standard. There was a large chart – columns and grid marks with erasable marker on white grease board, all coded by color – showing that day’s cases and indicating their respective causes of death. There were nearly 30 deaths in total for the shift in which I was arriving; roughly one-fourth was murder victims.  Most had been shot to death, though I counted two that were stabbed.

Bodies were stacked two-and-three deep on gurneys in the hallways. They did not have enough room to store them all in the refrigerators toward the back end of the facility, which was also where the receiving center was located.  Some of the bodies laid out were pre-autopsy; some had already been done, in which case they were stitched thickly down the chest, along the mandible line, and over the top of the head from ear-to-ear.

The stab wounds were the hard ones to view. I convinced myself that the faces of those stab victims were the most horrible, their mouths open and frozen in an unacknowledged cry for help. Those faces had wide eyes, and the bodies showed arms and hands evincing cuts and puncture wounds, likely from when they threw up their hands against the attacker, a final pathetic defense before the end. Recoiling at the sight, I reminded myself that most people would rather be shot over being poked. This is based, I believe, on a specific death calculus founded on a single question: which one happense at closer proximity? Horror can be calculated in increments of physical range. When you are shot, you may not see who did it. Yet when you are stabbed, you will grapple with your assailant; you will attempt to fend off pointed thrusts with your arms; you will see his eyes and you will know he intends to dispatch you. We often hear of people dying from stray bullets. But there is no such thing as a stray knifing.

And then there was a hazardous materials bin – which was not unlike a trash can – with 20 dead babies. These were stored in the corner inside a meat-locker-turned-freezer along with a dozen other bodies also stacked on over-packed gurneys. The babies and other corpses were stored in a manner that, as nothing more than a mere layman on his first morgue visit ever, I could only qualify as grotesque. And by this I mean that aside from the fact that the babies appeared hastily crammed into the garbage can, with one in particular draped lengthwise over the rest on top of the can, the other bodies present, all of which were adults, were laid out naked on metallic, wheeled beds. Some were skinny, some were fat, most were light-skinned and some were in stages of advanced decay, characterized by a droning slime-green rot to their skin, patches of flesh loosened and falling from them. They were not bagged or tagged, and were afforded no cover whatsoever to protect their skin from flesh-searing freezer burn.

But the headlining act was yet to come, and it arrived in the form of a fresh body I saw wheeled into the autopsy room from the receiving center.

Like the other bodies arriving, this one was also wrapped in a tight plastic sheet, snugly taped. The bagged body was removed from the gurney and placed on the autopsy table. A group of Colombian medical students, under the supervision of a lead doctor and autopsy tech, unwrapped the body. It was a woman, cafe con leche-colored skin and jet black hair, dressed neatly in jeans, a yellow summer blouse, and a turquoise sweater with hood. (First thought: how many times did her mother wash this outfit for her, never imagining it would be the one in which her daughter would die? And when she got up that morning, had the woman dressed herself in this outfit specifically for the occasion?)

But the clothes were not the thing that most interested me. White froth caked her face and matted her hair and trickled down her chest, a clear indication of poison. Confirming my suspicion, the lead doctor told me she was 24 and a suicide victim. Her family had worried about what appeared to be depressive tendencies, and knew she was having boyfriend problems, but never anticipated it would  lead to this. And yet that morning, she complained of feeling under the weather and said she’d stay home and rest. A clever ruse. While all her family members were at work, she ingested an entire packet of rat poison. A single packet has enough poison to kill 100 people of average height and weight. Perhaps some people take a little and get sick but don’t die, from the start their intention being merely to call loved ones’ attention. But this young woman who took the entire packet wanted to take no chances of survival. And so she took the poison with a glass of water, laid back on her single bed, and died. The coroner’s pick-up report indicated no signs of struggle suggesting that she had suddenly regretted her choice and flailed about grasping to salvage what was left of her fading young life. Her bed was nicely made and nothing was out of place. She had fallen into a deep sleep and frothed from the mouth as her insides began to liquefy, then suffocated and exited her mortal coil through every available orifice.

Curious, I asked for the cost of the poison packet. The lead doctor overseeing the procedure produced the exact packet the woman used, stored in a small plastic evidence baggie. The price sticker read 1,000 Colombian pesos; at then-current exchange rates, this was slightly more than 50 cents on the gringo dollar. (Second thought: They say you cannot put a price on life. But I can now put a price to death.)

She was a mother, but no one told me this at first. I was closely inspecting the body as they cleaned the froth off her face and removed the fecal matter that had leaked onto her legs as the poison caused her to lose control of her faculties that morning. (Third thought: I noticed that whereas they cleaned her assiduously and carefully all over, when they turned her over to do the rectal area, a hose was used at arm’s length. It occurred to me that no one wanted to be dead-ass-splashedm as if the splash from a dead ass is worse than elsewhere on the body.)  Once they turned her back over onto her back, I looked at her breasts and noted the stretch marks on them, suggesting to me she had breast fed. I asked the lab tech if she had been a mother. He reviewed her chart, and said he wasn’t sure. One of the dozen or so Colombian medical students present was apparently intrigued by the question, and began examining the body to answer this question for herself. At first she thought she found a Caesarian section scar, but it turned out to be false. Then the medical student noted a particular type of stretch mark around the pelvic girdle characteristic of having borne a child. The medical student and lab tech thus both concluded that, yes, she had been a mother. (Fourth thought: what about the child she left behind?)

Then I watched her autopsy. (Fifth thought: I don’t think I’ll do this again.) An autopsy tech emerged from a staging area with a number of steak knives. He sharpened them against each other as an Japanese chef prepares to slice steak fresh off the spit. He cut over the top of her head, ear-to-ear, and stripped the skin on her face down to her neck. The sound of muscle and tendon tearing lightly, barely audible, sickened me momentarily. I turned my gaze askance to recoup for a second; it was the only time I came near to retching. When I looked again, he grabbed the scalp and repeated the same quick-strip procedure to the back of her head. Now her entire skull was exposed.  (Sixth thought: Isn’t it something how a thin layer of tissue separates our bones from the outside world? Just like a small flicker separated this woman’s life and death until a few hours ago.)  The autopsy tech took a second steak knife – this one thinner and designed for work requiring exactitude – and began severing the remaining muscle and matter off her skull, leaving him free to cut open the skull and remove the brain.

Naïve me: I expected brain removal to be a more delicate matter, a procedure by its nature afforded softer efforts not only in order to avoid making an absolute mess of the head and table, but as a matter of basic propriety. But just as I had already watched them crank and manipulate stiff limbs on half a dozen cadavers, so this poor woman’s head was to be spared none of the rough treatment.

Thus the autopsy tech revealed not the small, circular electric hand-held cutter you’d see on CSI Miami, but a large and cumbersome carpenter’s saw. The kind I used in shop class in sixth grade, and the kind my father still uses in backyard projects requiring the cutting of thick wooden planks. He positioned himself against the metallic table, placed the saw on the skull, braced the upper body and began cutting for all he was worth. I do not use the word “shocked” idly; but I stood agape beholding how he first cleaved open the front of her head; then turned her to one side and then another to continue cutting at different angles (resulting in not a small amount of blood and bile dumped from her hanging mouth and pooling into a puddle on the table); and finally open the back of her head. At that, a quick twist and swift pull was all it took to expose her brain to the bright light of the autopsy lamp above. It was then removed and placed on a scale.

At this point they began sizing up her chest for the sternum cut that would expose her thorax and innards. And at this moment, I decided three hours was enough, and that was time to go.

  1. Brittius says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Magnificent article!

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