Title: Dead Center: Behind the Scenes at the World’s Largest Medical Examiner’s Office
Author: Shiya Ribowsky, Tom Shachtman
Fun Fact: NYC’s subway system is so vast it contains nearly as many stations as all the other subway systems in the country combined.
Review Summary: A not-too-morbid, sometimes funny, sometimes moving, and always fascinating look at what it’s like to work in an ME’s office.
In Dead Center we get to learn about a part of society that most of us probably don’t think about very much – what happens to our bodies when we die. This could be a very morbid or gruesome topic, but the author focuses on a variety of things other than the gore. First, we learn about what challenges face MLI’s (medicological investigators), including everything from identifying cause of death to interacting compassionately with grieving families. We also learn what characteristics make a good MLI. Next, there are stories ranging from the funny or bizarre to the emotional and moving – a recap of some of the author’s most interesting experiences. And finally, we hear about the author’s biggest challenge working as an MLI in charge of identifying all remains found at Ground Zero – a process that took over 4 years.
So, as I said, this could have been horrible and gruesome, but it definitely wasn’t. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who is unusually squeamish, since an autopsy and the results of 9/11 on the victims’ bodies are both described. However, these details are described tactfully and for someone of normal sensitivity, I believe that they’re moving but bearable. The author’s training mixing compassion for families with professional detachment lends itself to the perfect tone for this book. He never seems callous. Rather, he takes his responsibilities to the families of the dead quite seriously despite focusing somewhat on his professional concerns in the wake of a disaster.
I found this book to be a fascinating look at a facet of life we largely take for granted. Like the people who create our food, the people who handle death are an overlooked industry. Part of why I love non-fiction is the ability to explore these sort of experiences that I wouldn’t encounter otherwise. Many of the stories he shares are moving and some are even funny (often those that end up not involving a dead person after all). His tone is that of a friend telling you about his interesting job experiences. The many stories are only connected by a loose chronological ordering, but they flow smoothly together. Interwoven with these interesting and emotional stories are the author’s musings on the place of his profession in society, their relation to law enforcement, and other philosophical issues. For me, this changed the book from just a parade of stories for the observing reader to an engaging and educational book which made me aware of societal concerns I was previously ignorant of. This made for both an interesting and an informative read.