Still Lips Still Whisper

Meet Dr. Michael Graham, the city medical examiner. He hears dead people.

The silver plumber's pipe was the base of Michael Graham's bomb. Cool to the touch and freshly scrubbed, the pipe was recently plucked from a Wal-Mart rack.

With agile fingers, he screwed an end cap to the bottom of the pipe, then oh-so gingerly, he poured gun powder into the hollow tube. Graham meticulously swiped the open end with a rag; the smallest grain of gun powder caught in the threads could set the bomb off when he screwed on the second end cap.

A hole was drilled in the center of the cap and a fuse thrust inside the gap. If lit, the pipe would turn into a grenade, sending chunks of metal sailing through the air and into whatever -- or whoever -- happened to get in the way.

Jennifer Silverberg
The main autopsy room in the medical examiner's office. Each bed has its own exhaust fan and drainage tray. The scales behind the bed weigh organs.
Jennifer Silverberg
The main autopsy room in the medical examiner's office. Each bed has its own exhaust fan and drainage tray. The scales behind the bed weigh organs.

And the whole thing only set him back eight bucks.

On a Missouri military base he'd blow it up, examine the bits and pieces, and study the explosion. Just one more lesson learned about death.

Death is Graham's business. And he's spent years learning how to coax answers out of dead bodies. In return, they've taught him about the many freakish, random, careless or evil ways to steal warmth, breath, life.

The education is vital.

Vital not only to Graham, but also to the people he works with in the St. Louis Office of the Medical Examiner. Bodies have cold, still lips, but they still whisper about their last moments of life in ways only the people in the medical examiner's office can hear. Graham and his charges are the strangers with white latex gloves who remove the clothes of the dead and surgically caress cold flesh, trying to coax information from rigid limbs.

The stories they hear about life, death and the spaces in between are sobering.

Murdered people left to rot by their attackers; children stabbed or beaten by the parents; women bound with duct tape and shot brutally in the head; and elderly people overwhelmed by the unforgiving St. Louis summer. The medical examiner's office transcribes the tales dictated to them by the dead, then hands the knowledge over to grieving family members, law enforcement and, sometimes, juries.

Graham's pipe bomb experiment helped him unravel the mystery of one teenage boy's death. With the chilled body stretched out on a stainless steel bed, he cut the teenager open, probed inside with surgical tools, and pulled out a bent, corrugated scrap of metal.

A pipe bomb cap.

The boy's mother also died in the blast, killed because the bomb was inside a wooden box. Graham knew that just from looking at a hunk of wood embedded in the mother's neck -- it had bored into her flesh, leaving a gaping hole and severing her carotid artery.

"Of all the acts you see, one of the least humane is bombing because the number of victims is so random, there's very little care for human life," Graham says as he shows an auditorium half full of surgeons the autopsy photos during a bomb ballistics lecture.

Graham's voice is even, but never flat, as he talks about bombs, bomb makers and bomb victims. His clothes aren't flashy -- he favors light blue shirts, navy blue pleated pants and deck shoes. Substitute the blue shirt for a cardigan, and it isn't a stretch to picture Graham as a darker version of Mr. Rogers. Yet he isn't telling stories about the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

This is real.

So real, that he occasionally makes a gentle joke to lift the somber pall that's descended over his audience:

A man who'd planned to fish with dynamite was killed in a truck outside of a gas station. A cell phone and the end caps had been placed in the console with the dynamite. The phone rang and blew the roof off the truck.

"I guess it was the catfish calling," Graham says before going on to the next victim.

But the mood of the younger surgeons in the group doesn't lift. They aren't battle hardened, so it is easy to pick the squeamish and the tenderhearted out of the crowd.

They're the ones who draw a deep breath and use their hands to cover their mouths as they stare at the photo of the mother killed by the pipe-bomb shrapnel. She's splayed on her back across her kitchen floor, shirt and eyes wide open.

They're the ones who whisper "Oh my God," when they see a photo of two charred bodies, their skin looking like the black flaky exterior of a marshmallow that's been thrust in a campfire, ignited, then pulled out of the flames and allowed to burn on the stick.

Pastries are left half-eaten on paper plates and coffee grows cold in Styrofoam cups as Graham explains that the bodies are of a grandfather and grandson found in the burned-up rubble of a basement. The grandmother was upstairs cooking dinner, the two were in the basement. She heard a loud explosion and screaming. A fire spread down below, engulfing the screams.

The slide show clicks and shows an internal organ.

"This is Granddad," Graham says matter of factly.

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