Seeing the Face of Your Cadaver

When you’re assigned one body to dissect in anatomy over an 8-week period, you become very attached to it. You spend more time with that cadaver than with a lot of living people in your life, desperately peering through its cracks and crannies for elusive nerves and blood vessels that never seem to exist until a faculty member wanders by and looks for about 30 seconds. 

Out of respect, you only uncover the part of the cadaver you are working on at a time. The rest is kept under a towel. Which is why we didn’t see the face of our cadaver until week 6, when we finally got to the neck. It was a weird moment. Despite being intimately familiar with the body itself, seeing the face was an incredibly humanizing moment. He looked like he had been kind, with smile wrinkles, and peaceful expression. Like a nice Grandpa. We were all quiet for a minute, looking at him, before shaking ourselves and moving on with the assignment. 

Reflecting on that moment, I wonder how often we do the same thing with other people in our lives. We learn about their bodies, their lives, sometimes becoming intimately acquainted with their flaws as we dig through their lives with a scalpel, measuring how well certain aspects match or deviate from the textbook of “normal.” Not taking a moment to humanize ourselves and actually look at their face.

In many professions and “normal” life, vulnerabilities and weaknesses stay hidden until deepened relationships privilege exposure. Medical school (and perhaps medicine in general), uniquely makes those vulnerabilities “normal”. The emotional stress inherent in medicine and medical school bring out the best and worst in colleagues, classmates, and patients, as deepest flaws and fears are laid bare on the table.

Being vulnerable is difficult, but so is being comfortable with others’ vulnerabilities and emotions. Walking in someone’s shoes and experiencing or witnessing their pain is challenging. That level of intimacy can be either a burden or a privilege. If we don’t consciously choose how to respond, we can fall into the trap of emotional numbing–which might feel easier, but can cost us connections.

Brene Brown, a research scholar in human connection, noted, “Vulnerability can be defined as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure….embracing vulnerability and overcoming numbing is ultimately about the care and feeding of our spirits.”

Vulnerability and connection can feel uncomfortable at times,  especially with people we consider strangers. But Brown comments: “Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”

The face is pretty incredible. The sheer number of intricate and tiny nerves and muscles that allow for infinite facial expressions, facial folds, and responses to your own environment are sheerly whelming. They give shape, form, and expression to the part of the human you can’t touch, press, dissect, and poke—the part that gives life or meaning.


 Some call that the soul. Some call that life. Some call that presence. Some have no idea what to call it. But it’s the part of a person that makes us all of infinite value. Just by being alive.

It’s amazing how much softer your heart feels towards someone, even a dead someone, when you take a moment and really see their face.

-Celeste Zsembery


Photo Credits:

  1. Credit: Old lady at Mingun – Myanmar (Burma), taken by Steven Goethals
  2. Photo credit: Eric Lafforgue



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