There is an afterlife, after all

In college, my medical-student boyfriend’s idea of a good time was to get me liquored up and sneak into the dissection laboratory. Not where they kept the frogs, cats or pigs — where they kept human shells.

I remember ogling one cadaver, an elderly man, somebody’s dearly departed grandfather who was completely naked. His spotted skin — age spots — had a faint yellow-blue haze, likely from chemicals replacing his bodily fluids. His mouth was propped open, possibly wired. I half-expected to hear him snore or cough up phlegm, he seemed that real. That is, “recent.” His hair was stubble — maybe former military, because other than being dead he looked in decent shape — and age spots showed through on his scalp, too. His toes were bulbous. His wrinkles stood starched, like peaks of bakery meringue.

The shock came when I walked around the table and saw he was sawed in half. Everything from his brain to his penis was bisected like a magician’s trick turned sour. I peered through a diorama of tissue that brought back the cellophane leaflets of childhood encyclopedias. Dead nerves, numbed senses — the halved eyeball a particular eye-opener.

University-affiliated programs supply an estimated 10,000-15,000 cadavers a year to nearly 140 medical schools in the USA. Of those, a portion are rejected because of weight and height limits. Embalming adds at least 40% of deader weight to what the scale read for the animated organism, making an obese person all the more difficult for morticians or technicians to manipulate. Cutting through so much fat would likely frustrate students who are going after just the basics of anatomy, the rationale goes. Grim fact: If we don’t take care of our bodies while alive, we make disgusting death specimens, facing eternal rejection.

That old man on the lab table made an everlasting impression on me. I didn’t know his name or handshake, his laugh or hobbies, but I might carry our encounter, now three decades old, to my own grave. His family couldn’t know him as I did. I saw his core and admired him for working the afterlife so hard — unwittingly teaching those whose business would be saving and prolonging lives of others.

So when my father recently circulated an e-mail to me and my siblings announcing his decision, along with my mom’s, to donate their bodies to science, I felt no squeamishness. I was proud and comforted that their end — not if but whenever those horrible days would come — could be extended, like an extended warranty on their service to the world.

“We can see no advantage of our bodies decomposing in a casket,” Dad bluntly wrote. “What is your opinion of this? Does it give you a problem or does it distress you?” And he provided this link to answer any questions we had about the process in our state.

Burying a body, by comparison, seems a stingy way to go. Even the worms have their work cut out for them, forced to drill through shellacked cherrywood, then layers of satin bunting to get the goods. While taking my aerobics through a nearby cemetery, I’ve often wondered where we get all the space to bury people. Certainly, if we all ended up with headstones marking off forever turf we’d run out of room on this planet — saving any macabre form of timeshare/rotation on plots performed centuries after generations have turned over.

A Tibetan sky burial site

Good thing then that some people choose cremation, burial at sea and other forms of disposal that seem, on the surface, less space-hogging. My Buddhist daughter no doubt wants the greenest burial she can conjure, and her bird-loving sister has toyed with the notion of a Tibetan sky burial — in which a body is stripped, filleted and placed on a mountaintop to “feed the birds.” An attractive, if unattractive, way to quickly return some of the Earth’s supply of nutrients while lifting one’s essence closer to the purported heavens.

In the end, humans’ melancholic nature may demand a mourning site. There’s nothing quite as poignant as an empty chair at the holiday table, whether Tiny Tim’s or Uncle Jim’s. Since Neanderthal days, beings like us have set up monuments to missing relatives — rows of voided lives, buried artifacts, out of sight but not out of mind.

Our collective minds are what make the deceased larger than life.

Meanwhile, my dad, of sound mind, already has expressed his dying wish to me: “I just want to discover all that there is to know, like a cognitive blinding light.”

FOREVER AT OUR FINGERTIPS

In the ethereal online world, we also reserve empty spaces for pouring out our souls over the loss of a loved one. Rather than pull the plug, Facebook enshrines profiles long after statuses stop updating; a bereaved community can continue posting live thoughts to the wall, like a virtual Wailing Wall or granite “Wall” on the Mall, breaking down the wall between now and then, here and thereafter.

Facebook even asked me recently if I wanted to friend someone who died three years ago. That gave me pause.

Bob Twigg was a colleague at USA TODAY who won the lottery two decades ago and quit. He died in 2009. Was the Facebook friendship suggestion really him reaching out from beyond the grave to give me good lottery numbers?

Yet so many — from Abe Lincoln, now enjoying box-office success and possible Oscar buzz with Lincoln, to Freddie Mercury of Queen, who still gets air time at countless sporting events — never witnessed their full impact on the world. Here’s a short list of creative souls who had more success posthumously than while breathing:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — He composed over 600 timeless works, ever struggling for a stable income or a court appointment, and famously died a pauper. Cause of death remains circumspect. Even after rave reviews for The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, according to Bio, the range of his full genius was lost on his contemporaries — he was more like a “child star.”

In [Mozart’s later years in] December 1787, Emperor Joseph II appointed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as his “chamber composer,” a post that had opened up with the death of Gluck. … It was a part-time appointment with low pay, but it required Mozart only to compose dances for the annual balls. The modest income was a welcome windfall for Mozart, who was struggling with debt.”

Vincent Van Gogh’s “Vase With Fifteen Sunflowers”

Vincent Van Gogh — His art career lasted only 10 years and coincided with frequent bouts of depression and what others termed madness. He sold only one painting in his lifetime. Meanwhile, in 1987, his Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers introduced a new era of stellar art trades when it sold for $81 million, tripling the previous auction record. His most fetching work to date: Portrait of Dr. Gachet, valued in today’s dollars at $147.8 million, marks the fifth-most expensive painting ever purchased at auction. His death was called a suicide, but reports have surfaced indicating he took responsibility for the fatal gunshot to cover up the role of some neighborhood bullies he considered among his few friends.

John Kennedy Toole — Eleven years after the author committed suicide, his A Confederacy of Dunces, considered a canonical work of Southern literature, was published, winning him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981, posthumously.

Stieg Larsson — The Swedish journalist behind The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was the second-best-selling author in the world for 2008 (behind Khaled Hosseini), four years after he had died suddenly of a heart attack. His novels were published posthumously, which is why, I’m thinking, they’re so poorly written. By December 2011, his “Millennium series” had sold 65 million copies. Once you factor in the film adaptations, there was untapped fame and fortune the creator never knew.

A PUZZLE FOR POSTERITY

Just over a month ago, after a “missing” poster circulated on Facebook of a young man whom I did not know but who was enrolled at my children’s former high school, I joined a community of thousands, mostly strangers, in an offline search.

It was announced there would be a vigil after the homecoming game: Bryan Glenn was a football player who was supposed to be playing that day, maybe going to the dance that night. What better homecoming than to get this boy home to his parents, and soon. I went, camera in hand, in case the family wanted it recorded for Bryan to see later. He’d be overwhelmed to see how many people, mostly strangers, cared.

The fence beyond the football field was decorated with soda cups spelling out a directive, a prayer.

I arrived at the field at the tail end of the game (we won) and recognized virtually no one among those gathered. Several women got busy setting up for the vigil. One came over to the fence near me who didn’t seem as occupied, so I asked her whether she thought the family might want me to videotape. There were two local news crews, but I figured they wouldn’t capture every moment.

The woman, holding a small box of Kleenex, bubbled, “Oh, yes! I think that would be wonderful. Especially for his grandparents, and other friends and family overseas. Thank you!” I went on to explain I had only seen the flier on Facebook and felt compelled to come out and help if I could, because it affects us all, aren’t we all family? Plus, it was almost exactly a year ago that a dear friend’s son had gone missing.

“Oh?” she asked. “Was he found?”

I regaled her with the miraculous story of how that young man, about the same age as Bryan, left a note and was gone a few nights just before Halloween, that a cold spell had blown in — like the one forecast that weekend — but enough fliers had been circulated and a stranger in the next town over had recognized him from his photo, somehow persuaded him to get into her car and drove him back home. He had walked in the house when I was on the phone with his mother, and I overheard her heart skip a beat before her cries of relief and jubilation.

The woman loved the story, and we chatted about three minutes about heartbreak and frustration, until she said, “Yeah, but we don’t know anything, we have not a single clue.

“I am his mother, by the way.”

There would be no miraculous ending for her, her husband and Bryan’s little brother, who had been the last one to see him that balmy fall day, when Bryan dropped him off at school.

Searchers check a drain near Thaiss Park in Fairfax on Oct. 8, a few hours before Bryan Glenn’s body was found.

Or was there? More than 100 neighbors turned out the next Monday, a week after he’d gone missing, at the park where Bryan’s car had been found. Perhaps that in itself was a miracle — that determined volunteers, covering the same ground that police had in vain the week before, discovered his body, slumped against a tree, still standing, head bowed, looking like just another figure searching in the woods.

I considered taking down the YouTube videos afterward, thinking it in bad taste to retain public images of a family filled with such hope — a family that had grown into a countless crowd of well-wishers tossing wishes down a dark, cavernous well whose pingbacks rang hollow. Yet the video views literally doubled the next day. I realized those clips offered some comfort to mourners — something material to grab hold of when the immaterial overwhelms us.

A missing poster remained on the window of the Dunkin’ Donuts at Fairfax Circle where Bryan Glenn was last seen alive, on surveillance camera.

His “missing” posters also stayed up awhile — because missing him was the message, after all.

The mystery of what happened to Bryan may never be solved, no matter what toxicology and autopsy reports eventually reveal. UPDATE ON FEB. 25, 2013: Bryan’s death has been ruled a suicide by the medical examiner. See The Washington Post’s coverage, here.

Maybe something he scribbled somewhere or posted on the Internet may shed some light someday on what sent him into the woods, alone, lost. Maybe not a great work of art but something we can all relate to, something universal that will make us love him more. But his memory — a memory of someone I never knew — has become part of my daily life. Whenever I pass that park, so close to my home it’s hard to avoid, I think of him. I thought of him on Thanksgiving, and of his empty chair at the table, though I’ve never shadowed the threshold of the Glenn home, nor do I even know their real-world address.

Bryan still exists for each of us, for the hundreds of students and faculty at W.T. Woodson High School who didn’t have a chance to meet the new kid or who might have passed him in the hall or spoken words now elevated to epitaph — for the 3,443 people in his group on Facebook, who check frequently for news that doesn’t come.

Whether Bryan was out there under his own power or someone else’s, did he give any thought as he faded as to how he might be found? When he might be found, or by whom? Did he wonder about the reaction of friends or strangers — those three people who came face to face with his remains and could be haunted for life by the frightful sight. The searchers who needed grief counseling for weeks afterward.

Lucy, Turkana Boy or any of the fascinating paleontological discoveries made in our lifetimes have helped fill in missing puzzle pieces of human history. No matter their features or insights, one thing they had in common: They managed to die in a fortuitious, happenstance way as to become historic and represent an entire race or era of people. We speculate what they were doing on those fateful days of their deaths. What their lives were like. So, too, Bryan Glenn might have become a fossil and spoken volumes in some impossibly distant future, far more than our myopic tear-filled vision could ever realize. A truly teachable moment.

“Legacy” is a hard concept to live down. The jury remains out, uncontested. Any summary of our individual lives is beyond our control; it lies in the joined hands of the grief-stricken or historians or the otherwise insatiably curious.

The way society comes together when someone dies, though, is as natural and as strong a force as any dissected by physics. It is like filling in the displacement of water disturbed by a pebble. Water ripples outward and molecules immediately try to restore equilibrium, just as the inconsolable seek their uneasy peace — way different than before, with a new arrangement, new permanent and permeable connections made along the way.

It reminds us we are all a part of something bigger than ourselves, whether Internet or safety net. It’s a web with a backbone that carries on long after we’ve departed.

Bryan’s dad shared this photo on Facebook and wrote: “At Bryan’s graveside service yesterday a gathering of family and friends were blessed with this amazing sight…a visual message from Bryan telling us he is OK and with our Father. — at Arlington National Cemetery, Section 64.”

(After I posted this, I drove off to do some errands, and as I approached the park where Bryan died, there was this formation in the sky overhead — a doughnut, with the hole encircling the search area.)