Finding life’s meaning in death

Times Staff Writer

The dead man lies naked on a metal table, a small cloth covering his groin, mouth open, arms rigid and cocked.

A blue-gloved autopsy technician thrusts a hefty razor into his chest, unzipping his brown skin to reveal a thick layer of yolk-colored fat. He pulls marbled meat from the bone.

The man was 30, an only son, married, a father of three. Around 9:40 p.m. the night before, someone shot him in the head. Now, a technician at the New Jersey Medical Examiner’s Office in Newark is holding his lungs, tar-speckled as if covered with spores of mold.

Rebecca Schmidt, 21, a ponytailed biology major, stands over the body, alongside a dozen of her Kean University classmates midway through the eight-week summer course Death in Perspective.


“They’re looking for the bullet; come see,” says Professor Norma Bowe, 49.

Schmidt leans in, captivated by the disfigured ball of metal lodged above his left ear. She breathes through her mask sprayed with perfume, which does little to block the smell of death: feces and rotten eggs.

This is so cool, she thinks. Schmidt has seen death plenty of times, but never the inside of a corpse.

For the last decade, Bowe has led her classes of 30 students into the refrigerated tombs of bodies stacked bunk-bed-style in the morgue and into hospice bedrooms, glowing from television screens, occupied by the sickly and soon-to-die. She guides them through the barbed-wire fences of Northern New Jersey State Penitentiary, past the outdoor recreation kennels where gang members sweat and swear, to a law library where they sit down with murderers.


Her students are from suburban small towns and inner cities. They enroll in Bowe’s class because they are curious about her unusual field trips. But something more powerful also draws them here: a need to know how we die, and why. What happens to our bodies, and is there such a thing as the soul?

The poet and philosopher Khalil Gibran once wrote:

You would know the secret of death.

But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?

Bowe guides her students by this principle. There is a three-year waiting list to get into the class.

“This is his tongue,” another autopsy technician tells the students, pulling out the slimy bundle of muscles of a 73-year-old man sprawled on a table next to the gunshot victim. His face is peeled from his skull, forehead folded in a flap over his stubbled chin. The medical examiner’s report said he had been distraught over his wife’s recent death and hanged himself in his garage.

A young woman fights tears. Other students turn away. After a few minutes, three leave.

One by one, more exit, until three are left. One is Schmidt.


On the floor next to her feet, the shooting victim’s belongings lie strewn across a white sheet: a tangerine and red flame-colored T-shirt and sneakers that match, a blood-soaked white undershirt, four packs of Newport cigarettes, a few dozen MetroCards for the subway, $211 in cash.

As a volunteer emergency medical technician, Schmidt has looked into the eyes of people dying as she gave them CPR. It’s weird, Schmidt says, to feel their bones crush beneath her palms as she tries to press life into their chests.

It’s not the sight of someone’s blood, or broken body, or last breath that disturbs her. What Schmidt can’t understand is why, in those moments when death is before her and her adrenaline is pumping, she cannot bring herself to feel truly sad.

“OK, guys, gather up,” Bowe tells the students outside the coroner’s office. “Any thoughts?”

The students stay hushed.

“Say something,” Bowe says.

The woman who had been on the verge of tears breaks down.

“Come here,” Bowe says, hugging her, as Schmidt and the others watch.


“It’s good to be alive, right?” Bowe says. “Did you notice how fragile we are? We have no business taking our lives for granted.”

It is a Monday in May, the first class of summer session. Bowe’s assignment: “Write a goodbye letter to someone or something you have lost.”

“Go where it’s scary,” Bowe says, “go where you don’t want to.”

Schmidt, a former athlete, shifts in her seat. Seeing dead people? No problem. Delving into her emotions? Not so simple. There is a science to ignoring.

Something happened to her when she was 15. It’s her secret, and it changed her. At 16, she signed up to be an EMT. Her first call: a dead man who had been in bed for two weeks, decomposing.

“People look at me like ‘How can you do this?’ ” Schmidt says. “I wonder, ‘Am I too cold?’ ”

The class members introduce themselves: “I’m a psych major,” says Vatasha Daniels, a baby-faced 22-year-old. She lost someone seven years ago, but she’s not ready to admit this to everyone.

“I took this class,” Daniels says, “because I felt like it would just be interesting.”

Next to Daniels sits 24-year-old Danielle Pante, who seems unflappable as she tells her story: “I lost my mom when I was 4. Two years later my dad’s girlfriend died of cancer. In high school, I lost three of my friends -- two car accidents and one OD.”

A week later, after the students’ first writing assignments, Pante is crying and gasping for breath in class, reading her goodbye letter to her mother aloud. “I think about you every day, and wonder what life would be like. . . . “

“We’re here,” Bowe says. “We don’t care if you cry the whole way through.”

Another girl tells of a father coping with cancer. Another admits to having been raped.

But some truths aren’t ready to be revealed.

Schmidt tucks her paper away, crossing her arms, avoiding Bowe’s eyes, hoping she will not call on her. Please don’t ask me to read, she wrote on the assignment before submitting it.

Daniels looks at her desk, knowing she didn’t write the goodbye letter she should have. The pain is too raw.

Four weeks before we die of old age or after battling disease, our body feels cold. Our mouth and fingernail beds develop a bluish tinge -- our circulation is shifting, Bowe says in a lecture on the stages of dying. Three weeks in, our blood moves away from the digestive system, we lose appetite, the liver begins to go. Capillaries in our nose thicken. Two weeks in, our eyesight fades. One week in, the kidneys start to give way. A day or two before, our breath shortens. A few hours in, heart rate increases, blood pressure drops.

“You know how great that feeling is, when you first meet somebody you’re really attracted to?” Bowe says. “The same chemical will flood your brain when you’re dying.”

The body takes care of our pain.

“At the end of our life, we have a lot of wisdom,” Bowe continues, “and we have a lot of regrets.”

Bowe grew up in an abusive family in New York, and her struggle to cope led to a fascination with death and suffering. As she grew older, Bowe gravitated away from her parents, and spent years working as a nurse in emergency rooms and hospice care centers and studying psychiatry, in which she earned a doctorate. She has witnessed hundreds of deaths.

It is halfway through the course. On a muggy June afternoon, Bowe and a prison guard at Northern State Penitentiary lead the class through metal detectors, under a sniper tower, past a barbed-wire fence where entangled birds die and rot. The prisoners wail and curse and bang on windows and bars.

The students meet the murderers in the law library. One says he broke into a home and the woman wouldn’t tell him where the safe was, so he killed her.

Daniels feels no sympathy for the men. Other students ask the inmates questions. Daniels has a few pounding inside her but says nothing.

“That prison was horrible, and I am sure it is the closest thing we will compare to hell on earth,” she wrote in her reaction paper. “I went home and said a prayer.”

Daniels’ essays reveal nothing of her personal life. But as classes go on, listening to other students share their trauma nudges her to take a step toward facing her own.

The last day of class arrives. Bowe asked students to write about their most difficult life experience.

“OK, who’s up next?” Bowe says, looking at Daniels.

Daniels nods. It’s time.

“The murder of my older brother on June 24, 2001,” her voice trembles. “My hero, my father figure, a great son, a college graduate, a father.”

Her classmates look stunned. All semester, Daniels had been silent. Even Bowe had no idea.

Someone shot Daniels’ brother, Dwayne, one afternoon in a fight over a woman. He was 28.

Yesterday was the anniversary of his death. Her brother had been raising two boys, now 13 and 17. Today, they live with Daniels’ mother.

“He got 25 to life,” Daniels says softly. “I want to ask him now, was it worth it?

“When I went to the prison I wanted to ask the guys.”

“You still want to?” Bowe says. “Write down exactly what you would like to know, and I will give it to the men.”

Schmidt, the former athlete, never read her goodbye letter aloud. Writing it was enough.

At the end of the semester, Bowe returned her folder of essays. Inside it was Schmidt’s goodbye letter: Dear Brian. . . . I’m not here to say goodbye because that leaves no opportunity for a hello in the future. . . . I want you to know how much I love you.

The letter was to the son Schmidt gave birth to at 15. Too young to raise a child, she gave him up for adoption. She remembers choosing the agency and family. She remembers walking away from the hospital, reeling from heartache.

Depression came in waves. Guilt became her shadow, pulling her back from becoming the star athlete and student she wanted to be.

Bowe keeps Schmidt in mind on the last day of class when she reads them a commencement speech written by Anna Quindlen: The knowledge of our own mortality is the greatest gift God ever gives us. It’s so easy to waste our lives, our days, our hours, our minutes.

Schmidt thinks about this message.

For her final class essay, Schmidt writes: With each situation we are given choices. I’ve decided to live. . . . Thank you Dr. Bowe.

Aweek after the end of summer session, Bowe stands before a dozen inmates. She teaches mental health to the Northern State Penitentiary inmates each week. One is an ex-Mafia hit man. Another beat a man to death and became a Buddhist in prison. Some are the same men Daniels and the other Kean University students met on the field trip. On this day, Bowe has brought Daniels’ questions.

If he was given a chance to say anything to me, my family, or most important my brother’s children, what would he say?

Bowe tells the inmates to respond if they want.

One asks: “Do you think this will bring her some type of solace by doing this?”

“I do,” Bowe says. “I think it’s really hard for people when there’s a lot of unfinished business.”

A few weeks later, Bowe calls Daniels to her office.

Bowe puts on her reading classes and picks the letter from the Mafia hit man.

Living each day with the thoughts of what my actions caused, in a living tomb, is not much of an existence. Yet I am alive and where there is life there is hope.

Bowe finishes, and Daniels cries. “That hit home,” she whispers.

Bowe reads from the Buddhist’s letter:

If I were given the opportunity to speak to the family of my victim I would do so without hesitation. There are a million apologies I’d like to give them, and a million ways to say them. But I’ve already forced myself into their lives by murdering someone they loved. I’ll not dare contact them and offer an explanation then, and reopen wounds they may have closed. . . . That’s something you might consider, even if only to yell at the man, and tell him how you feel.

When Bowe finishes, Daniels says, “I want to forgive him, I do.”

“That’s a big step,” Bowe says.

Maybe one day, Daniels can write a letter to the murderer, Bowe suggests. But first, Bowe tells her, she must write the goodbye letter to her brother that she never wrote for class.

A few weeks later, Daniels will sit at her computer and begin to type: Dear Dwayne. . . .