Apr 202012

A few years ago, I went to see Bodyworlds, an exhibition of plasticized corpses — real cadavers turned into permanent, plastic models through a process pioneered by German scientist Gunther von Hagens. There were pamphlets available, many of which dealt with questions about death and the impact of seeing skinned and dissected plasticized corpses — corpses that still had their eyes intact.

Although the signs said Do not touch, you could get incredibly close to the bodies. You could press your nose to them. And of course I ignored the signs and when no one was looking I ran my hand gently over the hardened, preserved muscles of the body of a male stretched out to permanently simulate diving for a soccer ball. I could feel every ridge, every bump, every bit of anatomy and yet there was no life. He stared, permanently, at the suspended soccer ball.

This is what is inside of me. This is what people are made of.

There’s a line in a song, “Indestructible Sam,” by hip hop artist Buck 65 describing the song’s namesake:

a man like any other, at the end of a long day
guts and muscle and maybe a little more

I have always liked that. I think it is a simple and astute definition of what people are made of, what life is made of.

We are meat machines.

Crime scene and autopsy pictures are all over the Internet. I once saw a video of a kid who dove off a bridge, missed the mark, and split his face open on the corner of a concrete wharf. Cut scene to the ER where he twitches, and his face falls away from his skull in two perfect halves, crushed to a split perfectly down the middle. Attending physicians try to hold the halves together and whoever has the camera is ushered away. It is surreal. The kid does not survive.

One of the multitude of reasons I don’t eat meat, particularly pork and beef, is because of autopsy photos — or rather how, reduced to our basic components, mammals are all very similar. On a metal slab, you are cut open, layers of fat and skin and muscle are peeled back to reveal bones and guts. Fat is an orangey hue, not like you’d imagine perhaps. Inside we’re all meat. Inside, we are indistinguishable from the pork chops and steaks. Pork, incidentally, is rumored to be the closest meat to human flesh in taste and texture. Pigs are routinely used for human stand-ins when performing research into certain after-death happenings, such as how bugs colonize a corpse.

I am often caught in Wikipedia link chains for hours — most recently on ways to die. Strange and unusual deaths, torture and execution methods, etcetera and ad nauseum. I learned about transanal evisceration, and death by a thousand cuts. I’m unsure whether or not this is useful information, but I have discovered people tend to not know how to handle it when you say, “Let me tell you about transanal evisceration, it’s when your guts come out of your butthole!”

I suppose my avid interest in pursuing an intimate relationship with and knowledge of the body and death (and by extension the expansive and creative realm of human cruelty) is an attempt to form a clumsy relationship with what will eventually happen to me. My consumption of information regarding dying and the various things that can lead to it and what happens to your body or can happen to your body after death is my way of saying, “Hello, how do you do?” to death. Not that I believe death is personified and comes to greet you when you finally kick it (although I have always been embarrassingly endeared by Brad Pitt’s portrayal of death in the otherwise kitschy Meet Joe Black). But I figure this event is something I should get to know, because, after all, it is unavoidable. I approach death like a timid fan would approach a celebrity. I love your work. May I have your autograph? Can I hang out backstage? 

I’m not entirely sure what I have learned that is useful per se. I am twenty five, and if you assume I’ll live to average old age, I can probably expect several more decades.

But that’s the thing — I’ve learned that you can’t expect to live to an average old age.

I recently found a photo of a car crash victim. It was a woman, and she was stretched on the metal table, naked and ready to be opened up. What struck me was that she had makeup on. Her nails were done. She’d had a bikini wax recently. And her bones were jutting out of her legs (probably cause of death: internal bleeding or alternately, head trauma). But everything about her now-dead-body said she didn’t have a fucking clue she was going to die that day, that she was going to end up on a cold, metal table, naked, pale, photographed with her bones showing.

But that’s the way it could go.

I don’t drive. Driving concerns me. Not because I lack ability, but because other people are idiots. Every time I get in a car I hear a dull ticking in my head. Those are the odds stacking against you — every time you get in a vehicle it could be the time you get in an accident.

Another line from a song, this time by Sarah Slean, and the song is called “I Want to be Brave (Madeline)”.

Over time luck runs out and fate is not your friend.

I imagine time slowing down in a collision. I imagine it as a moment of zen. I imagine thinking “oh, this is happening.”

I imagine I’d shit myself because a lot of people, especially in traumatic or violent deaths, shit themselves. That’s a fact. It doesn’t matter if you wear clean underwear. The truth is you’re likely to soil it anyway.

But I mean is it really that embarrassing if you die? Nobody’s gonna say, like at your actual funeral, “She was a kind soul, and it’s really too bad she totally dumped a load in her pants at her moment of death. That’s just…wow, that’s embarrassing.”

It startles me the things people concern themselves with to distract them from the fact that the issue at hand is you would be dead. In that state I don’t think anyone cares about poop.

Here are some other gross things:

If you die at home and have a cat or a dog, and they don’t find you for a while, your pets will more than likely eat your face off. It happens a lot.

If you die in water, particularly the ocean, you will probably come out gross and bloated, and animals enjoy eating your genitals, anus, eyes, lips and any other soft morsels of your flesh first.

If you die on land and are left for a while, birds will eat your eyes out of your sockets. Apparently, eyes are delicious.

In Tibet, they do something called a Sky Burial which involves the cutting up of a corpse and feeding it to the birds. This is actually done because there is no ground to bury bodies and this inhibits any potential spread of disease. Vultures and other birds are extremely good for body disposal.

I think about that a lot, too. Who would be the last to have an intimate relationship with my body after I die?

The doctor who sews me up after harvesting my organs?

The birds who eat my eyes to help my decay along?

Medical students, learning over my corpse?

Physio students, pulling the tendons of my detached arm to see how they make the fingers move?

I think about dying a lot, about what it would be like. I also think about surviving a lot. What could I survive? What could I conquer before I die?

And I celebrate getting older. Once I heard a doctor say that “unfortunately longevity means more old age, not more youth.” But that is okay, so long as I can maintain operational levels of health. Every day, every year I live is a celebration against all the things that could have and tried to kill me but didn’t. When my hair goes grey I want to dye it shades of blue and purple. I don’t care what my tattoos look like when I’m old. I have the general philosophy that as you age, you are fully entitled to simply give less fucks. We tend to meet our quota of fucks to give early on in life. Therefore, as we get older, we must be more sparse but more meaningful with the fucks we do choose to dole out.

There is a story by Amy Hempel called “The Harvest.” It’s about a girl who gets into a motorcycle accident and must recover after sustaining a grievous injury that left a large scar on her leg. In the end of the story, the girl is standing on a beach and a child asks her what happened to her leg. She tells him a shark attacked her. He asks “And you’re going back in?”

She says: “And I’m going back in.”

Every day the shark could attack, and sometimes it does. And, despite my time spent on forging an existential acquaintance with death, and knowing that eventually I’ll meet the real thing, perhaps while shitting my drawers, perhaps after my face has been licked off my skull by a beloved family pet, the whole point is that this makes me cognizant of the very fact that I am alive.

And I’m going back in.

— Brianna Berbenuik


Brianna Berbenuik is a 20-something misanthropist living in Victoria in British Columbia. She is a fan of kitschy pop-culture, terrible Nic Cage movies, the philosophy of Slavoj Zizek, and Freud. She has contributed several essays and poems to NC. Look her up in the Poetry and Nonfiction tables of content.







  2 Responses to “We Are Meat Machines: A Meditation on Death & Dying — Brianna Berbenuik”

  1. I love this, Brianna, as difficult as some of the concepts are (which, to circle back, I think is what makes it such a wonderful piece: the inability to nod and say “Yes, that’s going to happen to me, too,” or even “Yes, I’ve thought about that, too). Just this morning, while walking across the campus where I teach (and to clarify, like you, I am “twenty-something”) after rushing to make my first class due to a car issue, I began thinking about how many times per day I actually risk my life. It’s a half-hour drive to work from where I live. Maniacs are everywhere. I swerve around an idiot driver, a wayward deer, a monstrous pot-hole, or an oblivious J-walker just about every day. The exact thought in my head was, “How can I expect to live for any amount of time if I continue to drive?” That said, the idea of leaving the house at all frightens me, too.

    Great writing, Brianna, as usual.

  2. Great piece. Disturbing and lighthearted. Gross and charming. I love the idea of approaching death as you would a celebrity. Thanks for this, Brianna.

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