One summer at college I took an EMT class. I didn't want to be an emergency medical technician; I just wanted the experience, and the nine credits of night and Saturday school, which I thought would be a cakewalk for an Army medic. (As it turned out, I did have to study, and I was hopeless at administering oxygen.)

Anyway, we were required to arrange half a day either observing autopsies or hanging around an ER. I chose the morgue because it was so much less popular.

It must have been around nine in the morning when the coroner started working on her first body. He was a 13-year-old boy who'd been riding a three-wheeler up in the mountains the day before, and it had turned over on him and he died. I couldn't see anything wrong with him that should have killed him, though. He was very pale, and his freckles were just little spots that were slightly less pale. He had curly red hair. His eyes were closed.

The coroner examined his limbs and the outside of his body, and spoke her observations into a hanging microphone as she worked. A few bruises and scrapes were all the damage he had. Then she examined the brain. She cut the skin in back of the scalp and peeled the face down from the skull like a rubber mask. I was surprised to see the back of someone's face. I'd always thought of my face as "me," not something that could be removed and replaced so neatly. The coroner sawed away the bare skull to reveal the boy's pale yellowish brain. There were little pools of inky blood, but no massive hemorrhage. Nothing conclusive.

Next she opened the rib cage to look for internal damage. She sawed big saloon door cuts through the sternum and chest. With the skin peeled back, the ribs were indistinguishable from racks of pork ribs you could buy at the supermarket. A boy that age is just the right size, and the fluorescent light on the day-old muscle makes it look exactly like pork ribs. I would dare any layman to tell them apart.

There weren't any gory injuries in the chest or belly, either, and the spine was intact. The coroner concluded the boy had died of spontaneous asphyxiation -- the three-wheeler’s weight had forced oxygen out of his lungs really suddenly, and … he was just dead. For some reason, just getting the weight off his chest hadn’t sent him back over to our side of the line. “A pity. A lovely boy,” the coroner said, and she put his rubbery face back over his skull so he would look good in his casket. Later, I found the boy’s obituary and cut it out. I liked his picture. His eyes were open in the picture, of course, and I had never looked into them before.