What an Italian Doctor of Death Sees

When the migrants come by sea, they sometimes don’t come alive by sea.

Source Davide Famularo

Why you should care

Because we all will die.

This feature by a forensics professional about the reality of the ongoing migrant crisis contains graphic content and may be upsetting to some people.

The gates to the morgues are all made of iron. And no matter if they started out black, gray or blue, they are all faded. They mark a border place, where every day death breaks into little parts. Exorcising the fear and crushing it, in small doses, while measuring the lost.

We first look for the last sign of vitality of a body that is now like a piece of marble. An autopsy is a ritual and, like any ritual, requires that precise instructions are followed. Precise cuts. 

It involves cutting the skin with a linear cut. Linear like the sea cut by the horizon line. The sea. Every day in this part of the world bodies of migrants end up in the sea around Italy.

They rest silently on the seabed, and sometimes, when the remains are found, they become bodies for autopsy. Most of them are Black. Young. Many times they are women. Many more times they are children. And finally, mothers with their children. I think, or try not to think, of what their smiles may have looked like. Their energy, now faded and gone to other places. Like I said: Everything here is still, settled, static.

They need me to find a cause of death. To find the origin. To justify. And me? Well, I am here by chance, because this is a job that gives you time.

The first thing I always see, or notice, when I get to work, though? The light through that iron door. It’s always a blinding light. White and cold.

Not too long after getting there, I’m sunk in the smell of rubble, of stagnation, decomposition. It’s a smell that has a sparkling, acidic tone that remains in my nose for days. Around me, the bringers of the bodies, the carriers of carrion, like hyenas, are waiting for answers. Everyone here, all participants in this ritual, seems excited. Possibly because they feel the enormous distance and detachment that exists between the living breath and the lungs that no longer breathe.

They need me to find a cause of death. To find the origin. To justify. And me? Well, I am here by chance, because this is a job that gives you time: time to think, time to make music, time to not work with death. See, in the end, the ritual lasts only a couple of hours, and then I am free to go.

So, I have time.

The drowned man today is a giant bear. All his tissues have absorbed water, so in death he’s like a sponge. A sponge soaked in stagnation. The skin is macerated; it’s white. Whirlwinds of worms dance in the orifices, fighting. The abdomen is swollen with putrefactive gases.

Fish bites complete the picture of a profound social reality for migrating migrants, while they move from air to water, from life to death.

The first cut I make, though, is the one that runs from the chin to the pubis. It gives me my first view inside the carcass, and now I’m facing the inner world.

Then the bone that makes the chest a prison must be detached. It’s a cage meant to protect the heart and the lungs, our central engine, the motor. So I use shears. They separate the ribs one by one.

When I get to the diaphragm, you can see that it marks the boundary between the engine and the muffler. With a few accessories: the liver, pancreas, spleen and a pair of kidneys. Everything below is in a state of colliquation, and the viscera are a single pasty cluster of shreds. Which is what we need for some samples for toxicological tests.

The smell is getting stronger now. The tone is darker; you feel the blood, macerated blood. Now it’s time for the cockpit. They call it bimastoid cutting — passing through the vertex, but the skin of the head is removed and turned into a cauliflower. Then the saw.

The pale rays of that cold light make the minute corpuscles of the bones shine. I think back to the cleaning of the blackboard at school where, if you were a lucky child, you got to clap the erasers and all the chalk became volatile.

Which is what’s happening now, but it’s not chalk. It’s bone dust. And it’s snowing bone dust as the room starts to fill with it before the seat of our imaginings: the brain.

The brain looks like a huge mushroom, and in the cases of drowning victims it sometimes is too broken down to be of much use anymore. Now all the inner parts are present on the table, brain included, and once analyzed I pour them back into the abdomen of the victim.

At one point all of this stuff had very precise roles and fit inside some sort of a social order. Now? They are all the same. All piled up in the belly cavity. And soon, in the belly of the Earth. Piece by piece, limbs on limbs, memory after memory. 

Life is a memory itself. A distant memory, now that everything comes together again. The broken pieces try to unite and dictate the ancient shapes of a skin. The human puzzle. The life puzzle.

A large needle, like those used by upholsterers to sew mattresses, waits patiently on the tool trolley. The black thread stitches the gaps dictated by the cuts. The circle closes, the ritual is broken and the mess is now over. Go in peace.

After work: Clean, dressed and depressed, Famularo heads out for coffee.

Mostly, though, death just reminds me that every problem, every fear, every desire lives only in our heads. We have heads full of problems that do not exist in “the long term.”

So finally we are just what we have done, as it’s a very quick step between life and death, between the miraculous and the sanctified, between a butterfly and a worm.

Some people say that the future can be foreseen in the furrows of the hand. I know better. I know from those furrows that the future does not exist because those furrows don’t have any kind of tomorrow. Our dreams of the future are all just projections, and there is a today, a moment and the hope that the circumstances remain favorable as long as we’re alive to perceive them.

The bodies leave, the light is turned off, the iron door closes. I then usually have a cup of coffee, and a breath of fresh air. This day I hear the song of a blackbird. I move away from the morgue and the border between here and tomorrow, from the furrow of the trench, and I say a thank-you for being there again. For being here again.

OZYTrue Stories

The intimate, the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising — the human.