Wednesday, May 4, 2011

My Visit with Death

By Andrew E. Kaufman

Of all the questions readers ask me, what seems to interest them most is my trip to the autopsy room during the research for my novel, While the Savage Sleeps.

“What was it like?” they’ll often ask.

Pretty gross, actually, but at the same time, illuminating because it confirmed my theory that one of the best ways to draw the reader into a story is to experience that which you describe. Googling a topic may be a good start but won't cut it if you're trying to create a solid and meaningful sense of setting.

A former television journalist, I know how to combine words and pictures to tell a story. However, writing fiction, I've discovered, is a completely different world. Unlike with TV, in novels there's no video to convey the tone and mood of a particular scene. Here, your words are your pictures, and if readers can't see them in their minds, you'll lose your audience in a heartbeat. With my autopsy chapter being one of the most critical in the book, I couldn't afford to do that, and despite a rather strong visceral resistance, I felt I simply had no choice.

You may find my reluctance a bit odd considering I'm often accused of writing some very gritty stuff in my novels. Besides that, I'm no stranger to blood and gore—I'd seen a fair share during my tenure in television news. Still, somehow, the autopsy room seemed different to me, like an intimate dance with death, a messy one, which I much preferred to sit out of. But as it often does, logic won, and like it or not I was off to experience my first—and hopefully last—autopsy (at least from a vertical point-of-view).

First stop, the freezer. This is where they keep the bodies before examination, a thirty by fifteen room with shelves lining three walls, stacked three high. At the time of my visit, every seat in the house appeared to be taken, standing room only. I walked in, gazed at the sea of body bags, then stopped in my tracks. I'm pretty sure this was the exact point where reality finally set in: I was surrounded by dead people, lots and lots of dead people. Guess it makes sense that with a city as large as San Diego, plenty of folks die each day, and they all have to go somewhere; I just don't think I had expected to be standing among all of them.

Next stop: the autopsy room. But first, a little advice before entering: I was shown the exits and told to use them if I began feeling ill.


Once inside, besides an all out assault on the senses (no need for explicit detail here), I think what surprised me most was what a busy place the autopsy room was. Now, I'm going to show my age here, but as a member of the Quincy generation, my preconceived notions were far more simplistic than I had imagined. In my world, I expected to see a lone autopsy table center stage with the medical examiner standing over it and a sanitized view of what went on. All this and, of course, wrapped up in less than an hour.

So not the case.

The place was busier than any newsroom I'd ever worked in, except it wasn't the clicking of keyboards I heard—it was the buzzing and whining of saws; probably why they had me change into a white space-suit-looking getup with transparent facemask before entering. Yes, folks, cutting, sawing, and drilling human remains is messy business. Things do fly.

Ten stainless steel tables lined the wall, each with a faucet at the top, a drain at the bottom, and yes, each with a body laying on top—all in varying degrees of examination, and most of them clearly missing things that shouldn't have been. I have to say that the ones without heads were the most unnerving. As they say, parts is parts, but parts belong where they belong. Looking around at the people working here, I got an odd sense of extreme desensitization, that this was business as usual and walking past headless bodies was like a walk in the park.

Wish I could have felt the same.

As for the autopsy itself, after getting past the initial shock, it did become somewhat easier to watch. I’m not saying it was a piece of cake—it wasn’t—but one does adjust to their surroundings if they stick around long enough. Even in situations like this.

As an added bonus, the medical examiner not only described what he was doing as he removed the organs—he also handed each of them to me (luckily I was wearing gloves). Kind of gross, I know, but nevertheless a valuable experiences for a mystery writer. After all, you never know when you might need to introduce a disembodied organ or two into a story—a kidney here, a spleen there. Like I've said, I'm known for writing grisly scenes.

I could go on describing every detail, but at the risk of losing those of you who have made it this far, I'll stop and say this: Despite everything, my autopsy chapter never would have been the same had I not gone through this experience. Unpleasant as it was, the truth is that as writers, we sometimes need to get our hands dirty—in this case, very dirty—but it’s all for the sake of the craft. Simply put, sometimes you have to give until it hurts. I did—I'm pretty sure of it.

Did I achieve my intended goal? I hope so, but if you'd like to decide, here's a link to the chapter, along with a warning: It's a bit gruesome, but at the same time, depicts reality, and that's what we, as writers, should always strive to do.

Andrew E. Kaufman is the bestselling author of While the Savage Sleeps, a forensic paranormal thriller.


  1. Drew, I really wish I could say "How cool! I'd love to do something like that." But that would be a big fat lie. I do respect you for doing it, though. You're made out of a lot stronger stuff than I. The chapter in your book is as close as I ever want to be to an autopsy.

    I, for one, truly appreciate all you and other authors give of yourselves to give us a great story.

  2. Oh. My. God. Powerful article, Drew! And so well-written! You took us right there with you. So glad I don't have to actually see--or smell--the partless corpses or the organs for myself, though. A very informative article, which I'm sure will be of high interest to other crime writers--and readers. Dare I read the chapter? Maybe I'll pass on that! LOL

  3. Great post. I'm so jealous. I've been trying to witness an autopsy for years. But I have had detailed conversations with the medical examiner about the process, so my autopsy scenes are realistic.

  4. Terrific post, Drew. I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Jonathan Hayes, a forensic pathologist from NYC. Their autopsy tables are different from what you described, but everything else is essentially the same. And in the desert southwest, body storage is a bit more, um . . . stacked. Students trying to obtain full accreditation really want to land in Tucson because they can usually get the required number of autopsies under their belts a little faster.

  5. Great post. I remember Quincy! Especially the scene where the new students faint as he shows them dead bodies. :-)

  6. Hubster was a research biologist specializing in marine mammals. Our kids were exposed to the "spaghetti stuff" inside a manatee from an early age, but the smell of rotting marine mammal blubber ... there's no way to describe it.

    Not sure I could handle watching humans being autopsied, though. Thanks for sharing. My deputy sheriff ride along experience pales in comparison!

    Terry's Place

  7. What a fantastic post, Drew. I almost feel as though I were there beside you, and glad I wasn't!

  8. Thanks to all. Glad I did it--even happier I don't have to do it again :)

  9. Great post and very informative. Love the blog and the concept. Im following. my blog is Reggie Ridgway

  10. What a great post! I now feel as though I need to visit a morgue of my very own! Let's hope, however that your next visit is a long, long ways off! Thanks for sharing!

  11. If you haven't read the chapter, you really should (Jodie???!!!). Glad you linked to it, Drew. You know, attention to detail beyond what you have to do is PROBABLY a part of what has your book still in the top 25 on the bestseller list nearly a year after release!

    btw, I enjoyed this post even more than other posts you have done on the autopsy as I truly felt as if I was (were :0) walking into it with you. You definitely have a way of pulling your readers into the scene -- whether a blog post of your stories.

  12. Wow. Thanks so much for the compliment, Linda. I love when a reader tells me they feel as if they're right there with me--it tells me I did my job right. Makes the autopsy well worth it and shows the importance of experiencing what I write about.

  13. This was an intriguing post, Drew. Bravo. The most telling tale was that the autopsy was nothing like what we see on television. A good reminder for us writers to stick with our own basic research.


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