Still Lips Still Whisper

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

A piece of shrapnel had punctured one of Granddad's major organs. It killed him.

Then Graham shows a close-up of the grandson, maybe in his early teens.

"This is the other victim, he's got one shrapnel injury to the face, it starts here," Graham motions with a laser pointer to the upper lip, "scoots right along the left orbit and out."

In the basement, boxes dating back to 1840 contain files on the dead that have come through the office.
Jennifer Silverberg
In the basement, boxes dating back to 1840 contain files on the dead that have come through the office.
Morgue technician David Brown: "Maybe I make a small difference that no one knows, figuring out how Great Grandma died."
Jennifer Silverberg
Morgue technician David Brown: "Maybe I make a small difference that no one knows, figuring out how Great Grandma died."

The left eye had been torn out. Not a fatal wound.

The slide show clicks. Another photo of the grandson.

"A lot of smoke in the airway, indicating that he was alive and breathing," Graham says in a clinical tone. "So this is the grandson who was screaming. Granddad didn't have any smoke in the airway, he was dead right away."

The two were constructing homemade fireworks for the holidays, "bottle rockets, Roman candles and stuff," Graham explains. Something set off the explosive powder, propelling a fireworks container into Granddad and also setting off the fire that killed the grandson.

Graham's knowledge isn't limited to bombs.

In another lecture, this time to second-year medical students who haven't started seeing patients yet, Graham introduces the novices to broken babies.

"This child has a fatal hit from being whacked up against the wall," Graham says while the students look at the picture of a toddler with a large bruise at the base of his small skull.

The man responsible for the bruise claimed it was the first time he lost his temper with the child and "swung the kid."

Using a pointer, Graham directs the students to the child's jawline and lower cheek.

"But as you look at this kid, you can see he's got a bunch of big, brown bruises here, and here, and more back here, and there were others.

"This isn't a toddler who'd been playing around. This is clearly a chronically beaten child. So the story that this child had never been hit before just isn't true."

The slide projector clicks forward.

A child, maybe five or six years old judging from the lean look of his arms and legs, lays face down on an autopsy table, nude. The child's back is covered with several large bruises and welts of varying shapes and sizes.

Another child-abuse death.

"You just have too many marks of different patterns to be explained by a single instrument," Graham says. "Parallel marks here, peculiar marks there."

Click forward and a number of household items are laid carefully on a table.

"And there are some of the instruments. The kid was beaten with a belt, with wire, with a hairbrush and with a fan belt across the back."

Many of the medical students wince.

But Michael Graham doesn't.

He's a forensic pathologist and the chief medical examiner in the city of St. Louis. Soft-spoken but strong willed, he heads up a small staff that embraces death. They must in order to pass one-way messages from the dead back to the living.

The flies dance around the surgeon's light mounted on the ceiling, translucent wings shimmer under fluorescent bulbs. Their small, but well-nourished bodies bounce off the whitewashed brick, liberated from a thick, black, body bag.

Millipedes and flesh-eating beetles pop out of the decomposed cadaver where surgical instruments hold ligaments and muscles apart, only to dart into one of the many other cavities created by the hands of nature -- and the hands of humans. A few of the many-legged creatures slither onto the autopsy table, then scamper over to the perforated drain on the center of the bed.

A forensic pathologist holds a pair of forceps in his hands and deftly mines out a maggot. He picks up a plastic vial and drops the maggot inside. It will be sent to a toxicology lab and searched for clues -- for chemicals and toxins ingested by the living and purged by scavengers.

David Brown peers over the pathologist's shoulder and watches the autopsy that happened on a hot summer day ten years ago. At six feet five inches, it isn't hard for him to see. Because it is only his second day on the job as an autopsy technician, all he has to do is watch.

And wave.

Bugs are nature's cleaning service, and their work is too far along on a decomposed body to stop for a postmortem exam.

"You basically just do the autopsy and flick every once in a while," Brown explains as he brushes his long graceful fingers across his forearm.

But Brown wasn't sure he'd come back to the medical examiner's office after his first day on the job -- the day his supervisor unzipped a plastic body bag and introduced him to a dry floater.

This is the body you'll be working on tomorrow, he was told. It almost made him quit on the spot.

"I couldn't believe it," he says with a shy and embarrassed smile. "I didn't think a real person could look and smell like that."

"Floater" is the slang word for a decomposed body. Decayed bodies float in the water. A decomposed body pulled from the water has been dubbed a wet floater. One found on land is a dry floater.

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