I lay on a cold metal table, pondering death and mortality, while Theo Huxtable dragged a scalpel down the middle of my chest.
This wasn’t a dream, or a nightmare. This was real life. At least, the fake version of real life.
I had gotten a call about working as a body double on a television medical drama called The Resident. One of the characters had died, and they needed someone to essentially stand in for his torso during a particular scene. I replied that I was available, and then got an odd text message:
“Production needs a shirtless photo.” What price fame? I closed my office door, propped up my phone, said a quick prayer that no one would knock on my door, and bared my flesh for an abashed selfie.
Later that night, I got another call. The directors couldn’t decide who was the best chest-double for the dead guy, so they were bringing two of us in. The next morning, I arrived at Stage Four, only to be shuttled to Stage One for makeup. The radio in the van was playing W’s eulogy for George Bush. It was to be a funereal day.
Sarah and “Shorty,” the special effects makeup artists, were waiting for me and my cadaver compatriot at Stage Four. They stared at both of our chests, which engendered the first of many odd feelings I would experience throughout the day. I was tempted to say, “Hey, eyes up here, ma’am.”
Rory, the other candidate, was a better match for the dead character’s face. I was a better match for his chest. I got the part, and Rory would be an additional cadaver. The makeup artists got to work. I was brushed, and airbrushed, from head to toe. I watched my legs take on a sickly pallor, and I closed my eyes while spots of ugly purplish petechiae were splattered on my face. Sarah painted empty veins on my chest, and I gained a new appreciation for the actors and artists who do this for hours every day.
When I looked in the mirror, I was both impressed and disturbed. I saw motion, and vibrancy, but I quite literally looked like death. Naturally, I took another selfie.
I was given a hospital gown and slippers (which made me feel a little more dead) and found my heated tent. Sound stages can be cold, and it was in the 20s outside, so I was grateful for these comforts. I met two more cadavers who would be filling the tables around mine and, collectively, we were a paradox. Four fairly young guys reading, talking, and doing very normal things, all dressed for death.
The production assistant called us to set, which was an autopsy room at a hospital morgue. I climbed on my shiny table and winced as bare skin touched freezing stainless steel. A camera operator named Courtney introduced himself, and asked me to lie completely still while he positioned a camera up in the ceiling to point right down on me. And there I was, chin-to-navel, on monitor screens all around the room. This was a teaching scene, and the instructor would be showing med students how to work with cadavers. My pasty, veiny chest became set decoration. I am rarely self-conscious, but I felt the urge to suck in my gut.
“Let’s go on rehearsal,” the director shouted, and the room quieted. The actors entered. “Hi, I’m Malcolm,” said one in a deep and hearty voice as he shook my hand. “I’m Mark,” I replied, and I connected the dots in my head. “Malcolm” is Malcolm-Jamal Warner. Theo was all grown up. Production Assistants circled around me. They placed my head on this horrible neck stand, covered my shorts with a hospital-blue drape, and placed a similar drape over my face. If I lowered my eyes I could see the wall, with fake windows and those huge monitors displaying my chest.
“Ready on rehearsal”—the director again—“And, action!” The scene involved Malcolm’s character giving a bit of a speech to the students about the importance of their discipline and the sanctity of life, then helping a student whose shaky hands belied a fear that the cadaver was actually alive. (Of course, it was, but never mind that.)
The lines were rehearsed, and then the stand-ins went through them over and over while camera angles and lighting were adjusted. I was very familiar with the process, and I knew it would take a while. I was therefore extra-thankful when they brought me a warm blanket and a pillow to replace the neck thing. The director leaned over me and said, “Let us know if you think you’re going to start shivering. It’s hard to look dead when you’re shivering.”
Finally, we were ready to shoot. I wept a little inside when the blanket and pillow were taken away, and I did my best not to start shivering. The iterations of filming continued for hours through multiple takes, changing camera angles, and on-the-fly adjustments. Eventually, we reached the part of the scene when my chest was to be cut open.
In the smallest of ways, seeing through the eyes of death added a layer of understanding to my living. It taught me that a death without heaven is devastating, and that a life not savored is incomplete. Mark Geil
The scalpel looked real but the props master came over to assure me it was quite dull. This was the tightest shot of me, so I worked on regulating my breath. The scene was too long for me to hold my breath, so I took in full breaths when there was a distraction and let them out as slowly as I could. I’m certain you’ll be able to see me moving if you watch the episode carefully. Still, I did my best as the student hovered over me, scalpel held in a hand shaking with nerves, almost touching my skin. “If you see blood, it’s yours,” Malcolm boomed. “I assure you, he’s dead. He will not bleed.”
Then he took over. He placed his left hand on my shoulder, touched scalpel to skin, and began the motion of a slow and even incision.
Then a pause, and then: “This is good, but I really want to…” which was followed by much technical talk about lens sizes and gates and focus pullers, and how one should hold a scalpel and where the incision should begin. It was then that I began to ponder what it was like to be alive. Or dead.
For several minutes during the frenetic technical decision-making, no one spoke to me. They spoke all around me, sometimes inches from me. They spoke about me, but I was, for practical purposes, a cadaver. I looked dead, in minute detail. My face was covered. I was on my back, on an autopsy table, motionless.
This thought actually came to me: Man, being dead is terrible! I wanted to raise my hand and volunteer that I had actually taken gross anatomy in grad school and that I know how to dissect a cadaver, but I decided it was not my place, and also I was dead. I wanted to move my head because that neck thing was so uncomfortable, and wanted to raise my shoulders because my back hurt, but I had to stay still because the cameras were so close. And also, I was dead.
I don’t know if we’ll sleep in heaven, or rest from our labors. I don’t know how aware we’ll be of the world we now live in, and its machinations. But I believe that we will not be like I was: a powerless ghost, cursed to observe a draped existence we can no longer be a part of. Lying on that table, with all that activity around me, despite me, an urge welled up in me. I wanted to throw the veil off my face, to sit up on the table and declare, “I’m still here!”
I felt like I was in a sort of purgatory, and heaven cannot be like that. It must be better. It must be so much better that, if we can somehow look down upon earth, at our survivors, we will smile a contended smile, and somehow know that we still matter in their lives, and whisper to them, “I’m still here.”
In Struck, Russ Ramsey writes of a real reckoning with mortality, and a real operating room with real scalpels. “For my whole life I have seen the world through the eyes of the well,” he writes. “I want to learn to see through the eyes of affliction.”
By comparison to Russ’s tale, my day on set was a trifle. But in the smallest of ways, seeing through the eyes of death added a layer of understanding to my living. It taught me that a death without heaven is devastating, and that a life not savored is incomplete.
I made it home a little after 9:00 that night. My wife could hardly bear to look at me until I got all that makeup off (which, I learned, is no small task). I felt a little bit like I had cheated. I had the sort of newfound appreciation for the little things of life—the soft bed, the comfortable pillow, the very acknowledgment of the people you love—that people get after traumatic events and near-death experiences. But I hadn’t really earned it. My near-death experience (well, my all-the-way-death experience) was fake. But then I thought, why must we earn the chance to savor life, and to be reassured that the heaven that awaits is so much better? These truths are gifts, there for the taking. I just had to die enough to notice.
Artwork Credit: “The Scalpel 2” by Dame Barbara Hepworth, 1949