I’ve seen Einstein’s brain. It had been sliced and diced. Chopped up in a million tiny pieces. The piece I saw was perfectly preserved on a slide magnified behind a glass case. I saw it about a month ago in a medical museum in Philadelphia. “If I stand very close to Einstein’s brain, will that make me smarter?” I asked my friend Richard. “Doubtful,” he said in exactly the same way the Magic 8 Ball replied when I was eight and asked it whether I would ever be rich and famous.
The Mutter Museum in the City of Brotherly Love also contains a huge number of skulls. When you think you’ve finally gotten used to the sight of skulls, you have to take a breath in your mind. Because there are about thirty more skulls to go. On the skulls are legible handwriting that describes the person the skull belonged to in brief pretty script. “Barbary Coast pirate,” read one skull. The expiration date for the person was listed on the skull just as you might see on a carton of milk.
What would someone possibly write on my skull if it was donated to science and displayed in a glass case full of other skulls? I have no idea. I hope it would be flattering. I find it hard to come up with something that might be relevant to a person peering at a large glass case of skulls. I’d like for my skull to stand out from the large display and sound noble and heroic. I haven’t discovered a cure for cancer or developed a rocket system that will send people to other planets. So, that’s out. I’ll have to do something noteworthy fast if I want a prime position in a crowded case of craniums.
Skeletons can also be found at the Mutter. So many skeletons. Large ones. Small ones. It turns out we are all the same on the inside when you strip us down to the bone. Our skulls are similar. Our skeletons just so. We look so very distinctly different on the outside, but that is just a facade. Below all that, we are polished white bones that look fragile as they hang in a glass case, revealed as the spindly scaffolding of former people.
About five years ago, my family toured a science museum in Tampa and walked through a traveling exhibition called Bodies:The Exhibition. It was controversial. Hard to see. These weren’t bones or brains, pieces of people under glass. These were entire humans stripped to their essence exposing muscle and sinew as if their skin had been easily shed. They were posed in oddly familiar positions, as if riding a bicycle, playing poker and conducting an orchestra. Some of the bodies were the shorn forms of small children. Fetuses from miscarriages were also on display.
Things fall apart. We unravel from our mortal coils, unsheathe ourselves and leave a husk behind. Is it blasphemous to see us humans stripped for parts like old automobiles and displayed under glass? Some thoughtful people view it as an unholy polluting pornography of the spirit to allow a hungry public a glimpse of guts and wiry veins in a pseudo scientific freak show.
Maybe there’s some redemptive quality to such a display. Is it enlightening and possibly a way to glimpse the divinity in man by its absence to see just below the surface of our skins? I believe we are so much more than the sum of our parts, and stripping us down only reveals how much the intangible matters.
We are more than our brains, skulls, bones and bodies. Something animates us – the breath of God, a spirit that departs when we pass from this world. Stripping us down reveals the missing part of the equation.
A moment after death, a physician weighed a subject and found he weighed 21 grams less than they had just before dying. His motives and methodology have been under attack ever since. Are those 21 grams the weight of the human soul? Or was Duncan McDougall, the man trying to measure our spirits back in 1907, just a scientifically inclined kook – a nut with a religious agenda and flawed science?
I choose to think that the immaterial essence of a human being defies measurement. That the soul – the animating principle that drives the engine of our bodies – could well be weightless and still exist.
Back in my childhood during sermons at First United Methodist Church in Salisbury, North Carolina, I often shifted uncomfortably in the pew beside my father. Nearly fell asleep. Felt that the message was boring and irrelevant to me. Wanted to escape.
I’m a long time gone from that time and place with a multitude of addresses and decades in between. I live in New York City now and often feel the separation and distance from my southern roots as a tangible pain like a missing limb. I try to track back to those days, to reconnect and remember. Some dusty sermons in that distant spot penetrated my brain and lodged in my being, their airy essence clinging hardily through my jolting journey.
You can travel forever and a day and still never leave some things behind.