I arrived early at the Church of St. Mary at Westminster College to get my music together and try the piano. It was late April in Fulton, Missouri, cold and damp, and the morning haze set the church in a sort of numinous relief against the pervading Midwestern gray. I leaned against the large wooden door, stepped inside, and shook off the chill.
The empty sanctuary looked ready for any ordinary church service. Hymnals peppered the cushioned pews and a lectern was positioned at the front of the center aisle. No flowers, no caskets. No anatomized bodies.
The Mason & Hamlin was at the back of the room, near the door where I’d entered. It faced the lectern: a great observation point, but a cold couple of hours. I dropped my canvas bag next to the bench, then sat down and tinkered a bit. The piano had seen better days—a few keys were chipped and the bench-cover, a needlepointed phoenix, frayed at the edges. But the sound was good and I liked its lightness of touch.
I knew very little about the service, other than its title, “Gift of Body,” and the general idea behind it: Students in the college’s advanced gross anatomy lab would honor the donors whose cadavers they’d been dissecting all year. I had agreed to provide some quiet music for a prelude and postlude, as well as accompaniment for a student soloist.
On the piano stand, I found a program for the service and a lead sheet for the student’s solo: AWAKE MY SOUL BY MUMFORD AND SONS. They had chosen a song called “Awake, My Soul” for a cadaver service?
“What,” I said out loud. The church echoed its sympathetic incredulity: What, what, what, what.
The door opened and I pulled myself together. Nothing weird or remotely funny here. I shuffled my papers, then rooted around in my bag, pulled out more music, shuffled that around the stand. Four or five students had come in. I saw a girl from one of my own classes, but she had exchanged her characteristic yoga pants for a modest dress. Some of the students carried bags, a few held notebooks. They were all so somber.
As an accompanist, I spend a lot of my time watching, reading people in performance situations: a cue from a director, a gesture from a singer, the first bridesmaid just visible at the door. And now: students attending a cadaver service. I slid the program and lead sheet to the side and placed my own prelude music on the center of the music stand, still watching as the students walked past me. The girl in my class, noticing me, smiled a little. They all picked up programs from a podium at the back of the center aisle, and then found places in the pews. As seniors in the small college’s selective anatomy program, these students knew each other very well, but they weren’t greeting each other as they normally would. They didn’t even whisper as they waited. Most of them came in alone, choosing seats near, but not next to, other students. They sat very still. Some studied their programs; some looked around the sanctuary.
I started the prelude, and the nocturne bounced off the marble floors, brick walls, wooden pews. There was no carpet in the sanctuary, nothing to absorb or dampen the sound. The church embodied the kind of resonant space a musician would call live, even too-live.
A Chopin “night song,” earthy and Romantic, may seem like an odd choice for a memorial service of any kind, but it was what I’d prepared. Stately Handel or cerebral Bach—music less prone to dramatic shifts in tempos and dynamics—would be a more typical selection for a service in a church. But, I’d reasoned, the Chopin piece was primarily quiet, contemplative, and emotionally absorbing. Also, the piece was among those I could play even if my fingers went numb, which they likely would do on such a cold day.
When I was around seven years old, I began playing the piano in public; I also began experiencing the dreaded “Skeleton Fingers.” Back then, I didn’t know what was happening to my body or why, but I did know that performance situations would cause first the wobbliness in my gut, and then the numbness—starting with my ring fingers, then the pinkies, the middle fingers. All of them eventually would lose circulation and blanch to bone-white.
I learned much later that I have Raynaud’s syndrome, a fairly common disorder, in which parts of the body lose circulation when exposed to stressors like cold temperatures. All human bodies react in a similar way when subjected to the cold. To preserve heat and keep blood moving to the vital organs, blood vessels in the extremities like fingers will constrict somewhat, shifting energy away from the extremities and toward the body’s core. In a body with Raynaud’s, this blood-vessel constriction is much more dramatic; the blood vessels spasm, causing complete numbness and loss of color in the affected areas. Raynaud’s is thought to be a hereditary disorder, but environmental and emotional factors can exacerbate or even cause symptoms: consistent exposure to cold; stress or exhaustion; repetitive actions like typing or playing the piano.
Raynaud’s has never been debilitating for me, only inconvenient, especially when I’m trying to perform. With pieces I know well, I can more or less will my numb fingers to play when and how I want them to, trusting the muscles when I can’t actually feel the keys. Before and during gigs, I take precautions: wearing gloves, even in warm weather; sanitizing my hands with Purell instead of washing them; sitting on my hands between pieces if there are breaks of any length. The most disturbing part of all this isn’t the lack of feeling in the fingers, but the way they look—completely white from knuckle to tip, completely alien and lifeless. There was something to my childhood designation of “Skeleton Fingers”: Since its discovery in the 19th century, Raynaud’s has been known by the alternate, poetic title Digitus mortuus.
Chopin’s music, while not easy, does feel natural and comfortable under the hand—one reason I often choose to play it when my Raynaud’s flares up. Some composers’ piano works are just plain awkward to play; they never feel quite right. Chopin was a pianist first and always, focusing almost all his attention on works for the piano, the instrument he knew best. He was a student of the mechanics of both the piano and human body, observing the strengths and weaknesses of each, and how best to address these in music-making.
Chopin knew how to make the piano, a percussion instrument, sing like a voice. His music is lyrical and plaintive, alternately haunted and euphoric, and as subtle and versatile as the fingerprint of the performer. He adored the Italian bel canto singers, and wanted the piano to achieve the legato, cantabile sound of these operatic vocalists. His pieces, including the nocturne I played during the service, employ beautiful “singing” melodies, with many bel canto chromatic runs and figurations over an arpeggiated bass accompaniment.
Chopin’s friends and students remarked repeatedly on the composer’s keen focus on fingering and hand positioning, which he felt would encourage not only beautiful sound but also technical mastery of difficult passages. He knew that the third finger was stronger than the fourth, for example, and which fingers were best suited for certain sounds and figures. The middle three fingers on the black keys, Chopin says. Keep the elbows close to your body. Use the wrist, but never too much wrist. The goal was beauty and simplicity—the apparent effortlessness of that sublime singing. And the music achieves this, thanks in large part to Chopin’s intimate understanding of the mechanisms of the instrument and the human body.
As I approached the nocturne’s middle section, an older man, probably in his late seventies, came through the large door alone, taking off his gray fedora as he picked up a program. Using a walking stick, he made his halting way up the center aisle and chose a seat behind some students. A little while later, a middle-aged man in a navy suit walked in, arm-in-arm with a small auburn-haired woman in a black wool coat. He guided her into a pew in the back, where they sat, rigid and apart from the others. I’d never seen these people before—unusual, given that Westminster is such a tiny, isolated college. The donors’ families, I guessed.
My fingers tingled. I pressed more firmly into the right-hand melody, keeping my elbows close to my sides. During the flourishes and chromatic runs, I focused on my wrist and the gestures of my entire hand, hoping my fingers would cooperate.
By the service’s scheduled starting time, the church was almost full. Mostly students, a few professors, including the anatomy professor and the campus chaplain, and the strangers. No sound except for the Chopin. After a few minutes, the anatomy professor walked to the front. I finished up the phrase I was playing and resolved it to a reasonable chord.
The professor wore all black—a simple blazer over a knee-length cotton dress with thick tights and ballet flats. She was barely five feet tall, and the podium reached her shoulders. She pulled the microphone down toward her face, then scooted her red glasses frames up her nose. Her long black hair was pulled back in a slick ponytail. She wore no makeup. Her voice quavered.
“You always remember your first patient,” she said.
Heads in the audience nodded. One or two students seemed to be crying.
“These patients have given the ultimate gift,” she said, shifting her glasses again, then sniffing. “It has been a huge privilege for us to work with them this year.”
Could a cadaver be a patient? I had never thought much about the word patient before, but assumed it implied some kind of relationship between two (living) people: the person seeking treatment or evaluation, and the doctor. I envisioned a cadaver checking in at a doctor’s office waiting room. But actually, I reasoned, the donor would have sought out this “evaluation” while she was alive—signing up her body for this study at a later date. We schedule plenty of health-related evaluations in advance, even when we’re not ill and probably won’t be, to check-up, check-in, clean out, scope, scrape. The only difference here is that the later date is so much later—past the time when the patient herself would feel any physical benefit.
The beneficiary, I began to realize, is everybody else. The doctors, like the future doctors in the classroom of a tiny college in rural Missouri. And the rest of us, who gain from what the doctors find. In a sense, this check-up is the most necessary of all.
Sunlight finally appeared through the wavy glass, stuttering above the bowed heads in the sanctuary like the beam from an old movie projector. “Awake, My Soul” was next on the program. I placed the lead sheet back in the center of the stand. A tall girl with a long blond bob stood up from her seat and walked toward the front of the church. The student vocalist. She took long, confident strides, her heels pinging against the marble. When she reached the front, she turned to face the sanctuary. She, too, wore mostly black—black dress pants and a black cardigan over a royal blue blouse. She smiled as she looked across the room, making eye contact with the audience. After a few moments, she glanced toward me and nodded.
I rubbed my hands together. I’d never played the song before, which I knew was probably a good thing. My hope was that the energy I’d put into sight-reading the chords scribbled at the top of each line would take most of my focus away from the lyrics themselves.
No such luck. The song consisted primarily of one chord, the tonic, which droned on and on through the first verse, shifting to another chord or two during the chorus, then shifting right back to the drone for the second verse:
Lend me your hand and we’ll conquer them all,
But let me your heart and I’ll just let you fall.
Lend me your eyes, I can change what you see,
But your soul you must keep totally free.
Awake, my soul…
Who knew harmless clichés could turn so concrete and macabre? Body parts were being lopped off and lent out, willy-nilly. The singer and everyone else present persevered through the song’s entirety in complete earnestness. She maintained her eye contact with the audience, engaging them individually. Her face was expressive—raising and furrowing her eyebrows, sometimes smiling. At particularly intense moments in the song, her hands raised a few inches from her sides, palms upturned.
Throughout the song, I drifted between professional focus and keen awareness of the situation’s absurdity. I was thankful my position in the room and the piano’s music stand kept my face concealed.
After the song ended, I placed my hands back on the needlepoint phoenix. The one chord kept ringing, the lyrics resounding, those long vowels reluctant to dissipate.
Time didn’t pertain anymore, it seemed. Now, everything happened very slowly, very quietly. The professor swayed in her seat. The soloist remained at the front of the sanctuary, hands raised, eyes looking toward the ceiling. The man with the walking stick smiled and bobbed his head. One student’s shoulders shook as she cried. I could see the profile of the auburn-haired woman in the back. Her cheeks were flushed.
I looked down at the yellowed keys, memorizing which ones had chunks missing. F, D, G… I wiggled my toes. Swallowed. My mouth was dry.
I realized, suddenly, that I was a part of this strange, protracted scene. I realized, also, that I was moved.
It wasn’t as though I’d never thought about anatomical research. I am an organ donor and have been since I received my first driver’s license. Organ donation had always seemed like the obvious, easy choice. Check this box and you’re a donor. But I hadn’t ever really visualized giving away a part of my body until the day of the service, when Mumford and Sons unwittingly painted that exaggerated picture in my brain. A hand. An eye. Would they take my eyes? The inner, invisible organs were the ones I’d imagined them taking, leaving my outward appearance intact and recognizable, even in death. I think that’s why body donation, at least in the context of this—a cadaver lab—seemed so different. The whole body, the visible person, is dissected, researched, and utterly changed.
A body donor doesn’t know how his body will be used. By donating his body, he is saying, essentially, that he’s fine with researchers using that body in any way they need to. Sometimes, the entire body will be sent intact to one place—a college anatomy classroom, for example. Other times, parts of the body will go to different places for particular studies—a head here, some tissues there. So you very well might be lending someone your eyes, your hands.
What would my own physical body reveal if analyzed in a lab? Would my hands reveal that I was a pianist? That I had Raynaud’s? Did I inherit my grandmother’s breast cancer? My great-grandmother’s insanity? And what sorts of answers would researchers find inside the body of Chopin?
Chopin’s works, both individually and as a whole, reveal much about his biography. Chopin’s earlier works are characterized by youthful vigor tempered by slight melancholy. Chopin had always been sickly, plagued by coughs, stomach problems, and fatigue. By the end of his life, his illness had not only progressed to physical extremes, but also had caused acute depression and recurring hallucinations. The composer Franz Liszt, Chopin’s friend and advocate, looked to the composer’s late works for evidence of his deteriorating body. In his memoir of Chopin, Liszt notes a shift toward excess in later pieces—abrupt changes in dynamics and harmonies; increasingly macabre harmonies and themes, including obsessive funeral marches.
Chopin’s most famous funeral march, the Marche funèbre of his Second Sonata, was composed after an extended stay in an old Spanish monastery in Majorca. Majorca’s Mediterranean climate would, ostensibly, have “restorative” benefits for Chopin, but the monastery was drafty and bleak, and the composer’s physical and mental heath worsened. As he wrote this movement of the sonata, he saw visions of dead saints floating out of the monastery walls around him. The resulting March is beautiful, with some of Chopin’s typical soaring melodies, but the steady, plodding dirge always returns, reminding us of the ever-present Dance of Death. Whenever Chopin played the Marche funèbre, he saw again the ghostly apparitions from the monastery rising out of the piano. During some of his own performances, he left the stage abruptly, mid-sonata. Sometimes he seized up or fainted.
For the particulars of Chopin’s physical health, we have to fill in the spaces left by the limitations of 19th century medicine. His doctors were certain that the composer, like so many others, suffered from tuberculosis. But modern researchers have pointed to alternative possibilities, like cystic fibrosis or epilepsy. Temporal lobe epilepsy, a condition which often results in hallucinations and partial seizures, could explain many of the accounts in Chopin’s letters and in the writings of his longtime lover, George Sand. But most of Chopin’s unusual symptoms weren’t understood during his time, instead attributed to the most likely causes: tuberculosis and an artistic temperament.
After the soloist returned to her seat, the professor introduced the first student speaker, who walked to the front of the church with a sheet of paper. Her brown hair was pulled back at the sides with clips. She curled her shoulders in the studied, self-conscious manner of the very tall. Despite her height, she seemed small and fragile. She placed the paper on the podium, raised the microphone, and wiped her hands on the sides of her purple flowered dress. Her voice was as shaky as the professor’s had been.
“My patient, Jane Doe, had lung cancer. Her lungs were dark brown from smoke.” She cleared her throat. “We could tell that she’d had children.”
I pictured reading the bones and muscles inside the woman’s body like reading a musical score. This dynamic marking suggests sadness mixed with frustration; this phrase hidden in the left-hand part is an inversion of the original theme.
Then the student started to wonder at the rest—the non-anatomical portions of Jane Doe’s story.
“What television shows did she watch?” she asked. “Did she have grandchildren?”
I thought about Chopin and the way I often attempt to connect the biographical dots as I move from note to note. This piece was written when he was in Paris, before the infamous Majorca trip. I pictured his long white fingers lightly touching the piano, middle fingers on the black keys, thumbs crossing underneath, wrists supple but not bouncing, elbows close to the body.
The student paused.
“My grandfather donated his body to science,” she said. Another pause. “He was a doctor, like me. He was what I want to be. My inspiration.”
She looked up from her notebook and around the room, searching. Her eyes rested on the couple at the back of the room.
The shadow of a plane shuffled the light across the room like a turned page. I traced the edges of the needlepoint bird’s wings with my frozen fingers, mentally feeling out my hypothetical future selves, their offspring and iterates. The people I’d love. The children I’d bear or adopt. The music I’d play. The pages I’d write. What beautiful, absurd, terrifying things might come up out of the ashes I leave behind?
“I wanted to thank the patient’s family, too.” She paused, still looking toward the couple. The man looked down. The woman seemed to be smiling.
“I know it’s difficult.”
The student walked back to her seat. Four or five other students also gave short tributes. For the entire semester, they had worked with one of two cadavers, Jane Doe and John Doe. John Doe was in his fifties; he had died from a heart attack. The students all noted how much they’d learned about anatomy, but they always came back to the personal. Maybe she was involved in the medical field. Maybe he was a father, a son.
A single body can tell us so much. It reveals the basic elements that define us and connect us to each other as humans—muscles, bones, veins, organs. And it hints at those elements that make us individuals—what can’t strictly be studied or observed. The relationships, the experiences, the stories. The colors of Chopin’s hallucinations. The location of his genius. The way the air in St. Mary’s hummed and shifted on that cold morning in Fulton, Missouri. Everything else.
As the chaplain said the closing prayer, I started the nocturne where I’d left off before, at the recapitulation. Recapitulation: a “return to the head.” The main themes of the piece are restated in the original key, but this time with ornamentation, intertwining with the secondary themes from the piece’s middle section. It’s as though the piece has been through its own complex, wandering life, and then has come back home—wiser, changed, and yet still recognizable, still completely itself.
The nocturne signaled the service’s end. Professors, students, and strangers moved down the aisle slowly and quietly, the huge door swinging open and shut, sending waves of chilly wind around the piano again. By the time the final student disappeared, my entire hands were the color of the keys. I kept playing for a long time that day. There was no audience left to listen, no one left for me to observe—only my lone body, and the music.