"Have you prepped him yet?"
"I was just about to commence draining."
"I need to see his testicles."
We're back in the second season of "CSI," the most popular scripted show on television, and in the episode's first scene, a man fell, jumped or was pushed off the 12th floor of a Las Vegas construction site. We saw the body on the way down, and we saw it again once it hit the pavement. There was blood, but not much. In fact, the guy almost looked like he'd laid down and gone to sleep, although later, when we met up with him again, in the examining room, we learned that he'd broken every bone in his body except those of the inner ear - "malleus, incus, stapes, completely protected by the skull." Again, he didn't look like he'd broken nearly every bone in his body. He looked...pretty good, except for his right upper arm and shoulder, plus the right side of his neck and face, all of which looked like they'd gone through a paper shredder. Okay, maybe he wouldn't be waking up after all.
But he'd be telling us things before being laid to eternal rest. Thanks in large part to shows like "CSI" - and there are a lot of shows like "CSI," including "CSI: Miami" and "CSI: New York" - we've become a nation of fingerprint-lifting, evidence-sifting, scalpel-wielding bloodhounds, amateur sleuths awash in bodily fluids. And our patron saint is "CSI" guru Gil Grissom, whom William Petersen has endowed with just enough personality to qualify as human. The head of Las Vegas' crime-scene investigative department, the second busiest in the country, Grissom is the Sherlock Holmes of Sin City, so attuned to hair, fiber and blood analysis that he seems to inhabit a world of his own, a trace-evidence world that, delved into far enough, takes on the contours of a religion. And so, when Gil Grissom says he needs to see a dead man's testicles, you can bet he has a pretty good reason for it.
Apparently, our own need to see a dead man's testicles isn't strong enough. Tracking down the body at the morgue, where he hopes to confirm a diagnosis that only he could have arrived at, Grissom discreetly lifts up the white sheet that's been draped over the construction worker's lower body, takes a peek and cops a feel. "Testicular atrophy," he announces with a slight air of triumph. "They're the size of peas." Even the guy who's about to perform the autopsy seems a little surprised by that one. "Poor guy!" he says. Yes, but that poor guy has just revealed to us that his death was probably a homicide instead of a suicide. "Stick a syringe in his carotid all the way up to his clavicle," Grissom orders. "You want his blood?" someone asks. "One pint, to go," he replies, without even the trace of a smile.
Maybe you have to keep a straight face while indulging in gallows humor, but tell that to the producers of shows like "Nip/Tuck" and the dearly departed "Six Feet Under," where laughter, though not the best medicine, has its anesthetic benefits, deadening the pain of a world perched precariously between life and death. Cable television's most popular show among the cherished never-too-early-to-have-some-work-done demographic, "Nip/Tuck" may have jumped the shark in the opening moments of its very first episode when Christian (a Good Samaritan in name only), after making a long vertical incision where the sun don't shine, wedged a butt implant into place. One small problem: It's upside-down, an oversight left for Christian's partner, Sean, to discover later. And when he does, there's a brief moment of what will have to pass for contrition. "You've saved my ass again," Christian says.
Since then, our pair of skin-deep Dr. Kildares has performed any number of cut-and-paste jobs. They've lifted faces, enlarged breasts, replaced a clitoris (with tissue taken from the patient's toe), removed a baby's tail - all of this depicted with the kind of graphic detail we've come to expect from cable TV. In one episode, Christian performed a rhinoplasty on himself, which either is or isn't a violation of the Hippocratic oath. Even so, the operating-room scenes on "Nip/Tuck" have been praised for their accuracy by members of the cosmetic-surgery trade. And before its recent demise, "Six Feet Under" also got its share of kudos for faithfully adhering to the strictures of mortuary science. Death by hot dog, death by golf ball, death by frying pan, death by dough mixer - each corpse wound up on the stainless-steel table in the basement of Fisher and Sons, put there for our personal delectation.
Some of you may not find dead bodies all that delectable. If so, the folks at Nielsen Media Research haven't heard of you, because when it comes to television ratings, dead bodies are often the stars of the show, especially if we're allowed to read the entrails. "Forensic Files," "Body of Evidence," "Crossing Jordan," "Cold Case," "Accident Investigators," "Without a Trace," "Skeleton Stories," "Bones," "Autopsy" - you can't turn on the telly these days without compromising a crime scene. And if dead bodies aren't your thing, how about some live specimens? "Extreme Makeover" and "The Swan" have brought a cutting-edge narcissism to the old "Queen for a Day" wish-fulfillment fantasies. Not drastic enough for you? Try Oxygen's "Drastic Plastic Surgery." In the good old days, we used to skip past the surgery channel, lest it spoil our appetites. Today, every channel's the surgery channel, and we lap it up.
But not just on TV. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was the most graphically violent depiction of Jesus' torture and execution ever put on film - two solid (not to mention liquid) hours of watching a body being turned into a corpse. And speaking of corpses, there are now whole books devoted to them, from Christine Quigley's scholarly yet accessible The Corpse: A History to Mary Roach's hilarious yet informative Stiff, which includes a chapter on the crucifixion experiments that Gibson drew on for his excruciating - excruciating, from the Latin "excruciatus," meaning "out of the cross" - portrayal. And then there's Patricia Cornwell's "Kay Scarpetta, Medical Examiner" murder mysteries, where the plots tend to hinge on icky autopsies. "The peanuts had barely begun clearing Harper's stomach," she wrote in Body of Evidence. "There was nothing else but brownish fluid, and I could smell the alcohol."
We can all smell, if not the alcohol, then the formaldehyde these days, bodies serving as little more than bodies of evidence. It's therefore somewhat refreshing to attend an exhibition like "Body World," which caters to our need to be in the same room with human cadavers, but without the smell and without the need to lift prints. Gunther von Hagens, a German anatomist, has perfected a process over the years that allows selected people to live forever, albeit as plastic action figures. Having donated their bodies to science fiction, they are freeze-dried upon death, every cell of their carcasses infused with silicone. Et voilà: a cadaver that doesn't smell like a cadaver, feel like a cadaver or, when you get right down to it, look like a cadaver. But it is a cadaver! And "Body World," which has attracted around-the-clock crowds wherever it has appeared, is, at its best, an anatomy textbook sprung to "life."
Some of the specimens, sliced and spliced to illustrate particular bodily functions, provide a valuable service to those of us who've been eating, drinking or smoking too much. Others go about their daily lives - riding a bicycle, playing basketball, practicing yoga - as if they're attending a nudist camp where the desire to take it all off has gotten way out of hand. Still others - e.g., a man leaning over a chess board, his skull removed to show his brain contemplating its next move - make you question whether Hannibal Lecter wasn't one of the exhibition's curators. And slowly it dawns on you that the veneer of education is just that, a veneer. We're not there to learn whether the ankle bone's connected to the leg bone, the leg bone's connected to the knee bone, the knee bone's connected to the thigh bone. We're there to satisfy our morbid curiosity.
Let's face it, we're all on the graveyard shift, digging up bodies to play with - dead or alive, we don't care, as long as they're neatly laid out for our perusal, the insides as accessible as the outsides. Sick? Not necessarily. It's not like we're necrophiliacs or anything. We just want a good look at the mystery of life, the mystery of death. In that sense, we're not so different from the physicians who, over the centuries, have sought somebody - make that some body - to help them pursue the study of medicine, especially anatomy. And whereas we merely have to turn on the TV (or go on the Internet, where any number of surgeries can be observed, including Carnie Wilson's stomach-reduction operation), they had to dig up their own sources, sometimes literally. As Roach puts it in Stiff, "Few sciences are as rooted in shame, infamy and bad PR as human anatomy."
Dissection for the purposes of "hey, what's that thing?" got off the ground in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece, but there was always a taboo attached, and the Christian Church, once it had the power, squelched the practice, seemingly forever. But during the Renaissance, the Church began to change its mind. Yes, all those squishy innards were "God's province," but maybe allowing us to visit God's province would cause us to admire what He'd done with the place. Human anatomy was off and running, particularly in the work of Andreas Vesalius, a Belgian physicist whose seven-volume On the Workings of the Human Body, which included illustrations by Titian, corrected errors that reached all the way back to antiquity. But physicians weren't the only ones for whom anatomy was destiny. Painters, driven by a passion to capture every square inch of every single muscle, also got into the act.
And sometimes they painted paintings of anatomists. Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp was completed in 1632, when the Dutch master was 26, and it's as if we're watching a really early episode of "CSI." Dressed in their white-ruffled finest, a group of men has gathered around the largely intact remains of Aris Kindt, who was hanged for armed robbery. (Executed criminals often wound up in the Theatrum Anatomicum.) Most of these gentlemen are completely absorbed in what Dr. Tulp's doing, and so are we, for he's peeled away the skin of the left forearm, exposing the sinewy muscles and tendons underneath. It appears to be a demonstration of how the muscles of the arm coordinate to provide various movements. And, perhaps unconsciously, the doctor's own left arm is raised in a delicate gesture that suggests the conducting of an orchestra. Dissection has become a performance art.
And it would remain one for many years, though for mature audiences only, viewer discretion advised. When Thomas Eakins completed The Gross Clinic - a monumentally huge painting of a Philadelphia surgeon giving a lecture-demonstration on the removal of diseased bone - he fully expected it to receive pride of place in the upcoming Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. Instead, it was taken over to the medical pavilion, where, as one commentator later wrote, "it shared space with surgical equipment, catheters and bedpans." And it's not all that hard to see why. Shrouded in darkness, Dr. Gross' assistants go after the patient's thigh like an auto mechanic extracting particularly stubborn spark plugs. Meanwhile, the good doctor, his massive forehead bathed in light, looks out at the audience, the bloody fingers of his right hand clasping a scalpel. The patient's mother, sitting behind him, shields her face with her arm. We know just how she feels.
Hailed by later critics as the greatest American painting of the 19th century, The Gross Clinic may simply have been ahead of its time, monacled art critics among the last to embrace the gothic fantasies of Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and Robert Louis Stevenson (The Body Snatcher). Medieval entertainment values held sway in other corners of the world as well - the Paris morgue, for example, where corpses dressed up like Madame Tussaud's waxworks were displayed until the 1920s. But science was on the march, dragging dead and live bodies behind it, and nobody embodied its forward progress more than Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle's beloved detective, whom Conan Doyle described as "the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen." Holmes didn't care about who did it. He cared about what was done and how. The who would naturally follow.
Sound familiar? It should, because it's the template for every forensics show on TV. They may vary in exactly how much they rely on the evidence, but they all rely on the evidence, and none more so than "CSI." Despite his little do-si-do with dominatrix Lady Heather, who exposed the kink in his armor, Gil Grissom is an evidence-processing machine, and you have to wonder whether there isn't some good old-fashioned Freudian repression going on, both on his part and on ours. "It's time to add splashes of character," creator Anthony Zuiker said early in the show's run, "but people are in love with the procedure and the science." That's undoubtedly true, but maybe they're also in love with the bodies, drawn to the cabinet of curiosities that's put before them every week - the bullet holes in the chest, the rope marks on the neck, the tag on the toe. Maybe they want to cozy up to the Grim Reaper, see how he goes about his business.
He's not that easy a guy to find anymore. People still die, of course, but we aren't necessarily there to see them do it. They're in a hospital or a nursing home, even if they've left specific instructions to take no extraordinary measures. Less than a century ago, they would more than likely have died at home. And, once dead, they would more than likely have spent a few more days at home, hanging around the parlor in their Sunday best. Today, it's the funeral home, the funeral parlor, where we pay our respects to the dead, say our goodbyes. But there may not be a body there, cremation having grown in popularity during the last 50 years. And there very likely will not have been an autopsy, the centuries-long procedure having fallen out of favor except in cases involving homicide, suicide or mysterious illnesses. We've put everything we have into prolonging life. What comes after that is more of an afterthought.
An afterthought or a repressed memory? According to studies, the average TV viewer has witnessed over 18,000 murders by the time he or she graduates from high school, but an actual in-the-flesh dead body? Maybe a grandparent. Recently, the number of American soldiers who've died in Iraq surpassed the number of American citizens who died in the World Trade Center. Have you seen any flag-draped coffins? Me neither. A century and a half ago, when photography was getting off the ground, people had pictures taken of their deceased loved ones - babies in their carriages, children on their mothers' laps, adults in their beds. There was an element of denial, obviously, but there was also an element of acceptance, the gathering of memento mori as a way of acknowledging death's dominion. Today, death - real-live death - is shunted off to the side, hidden from view.
So no wonder we watch autopsy shows like "CSI." They allow us a glimpse of death, in all its unfathomable mystery. "Autopsy" comes from the Greek word "autopsia," for "the act of seeing with one's own eyes." And that's what we want: to see with our own eyes what death looks like. On television, what we're allowed to see isn't real, exactly. And the one vital organ these shows never quite get around to dissecting is the human heart. But at least we're put in some sort of contact with that place we'll all wind up in someday, the Land of the Dead. Scoping out a crime scene, sifting through the evidence, lifting prints, waiting for the lab work to be done - just how interesting would this stuff be without a dead body hanging around? Some of us may not even like forensic science all that much. But when it comes to admiring the Grim Reaper's handiwork, we'll take whatever we can get.