My First Autopsy – Sharing of an Important Day

Dear all,Theruvan Saranai! (May the Blessings of the Triple Gems be with You!)

Today on 06 February 2013, 3 days after my 51st Birthday, I went to my first autopsy.

I woke up with a feeling of intense depression, a feeling I sometimes encounter when things in my life show their uncontrollable nature, when things seem to get out of hand, slide down an abyss. It was a good start of the day realizing that this intense feeling was nothing but the manifestation of intense fear of death. Fear to be out of control. A Kilesa.

In order to understand the nature of the Warrior treading along the meditative path, it is helpful to read The Path to Arahantship written by Luangta Maha Boowa (1913 – 2011). Specifically his description on Asubha bhavana.

I did Asubha bhavana two times between the herbal tea and a very super-light breakfast as recommended by the experts of the world wide autopsy net. I was craving for coffee but I controlled the urge as I have heard that one should not drink anything stimulating before a postmortem examination.

I was well prepared by Luangta Maha Boowa’s ‘go into the ring‘ attitude, the internet autopsy experts and after watching an autopsy of a Chinese woman on YouTube. Thais – my 24 year old sudden Dhamma-daughter from Brazil and I went to the restaurant to buy lunch-Dana for nine females – four nuns and five lay females.

When we arrived at the National Hospital Colombo, we realized that there were several ‘main entrances’. It was a bit of an organizing turmoil, I got some headaches of organizational-stress and strange ear pressure-sound that pushed all sounds in the universe away. While walking towards Ward No 1,  I passed some trees that smelled of strongly of ancient urine.

When I looked at the buildings of the huge National Hospital, I saw birth, old age, sickness, death – all there. Right now. Right now someone gets born again. Someone is very sick again. Dies again. A real Dhamma-place. Maybe it is good to build meditation Kutis at Hospitals.

My mind was on that mode. It constantly reflected about the body in order to see the reality of the body. To be prepared.

Just a couple of days ago, at the beginning of this project there was only myself brave enough to face this unknown experience. Later the number of eager females started to add up. Finally we all got together successfully as a group and we were ten females – four Nuns and six lay females.

 All things are on a constant change.

I was a bit upset because I read that in order to encounter an autopsy one should be relaxed. However due to the effort of bringing this group to the hospital on time I had developed a slight headache and there was a little tendency to get angry and give others the blame of one’s own dukkha. ‘Wanting to be’ is also a Kilesa. I told myself, ‘Skip it Petra. Just note it and forget it’.

We went and met Dr Renuka Mahanama who nicely welcomed us and wished us a GOOD AUTOPSY. Doc-Humor I guessed. I asked her what a ‘good autopsy’ means and got told with a giggle that it is a fresh one, not an old rotten one. One who died just the day before. She phoned the forensic section and told me happily that we lucky fellows got a good, fresh one. One from Colombo area.

We walked to the forensic pathology institute, the section where the murder cases and suicide cases get investigated. I had the feeling I was walking to my own execution. We all were very quiet and each one of us went in a meditative mood. I pushed the mind on Bud-Dho fiercely and along with Bud-Dho I did some walking meditation as well. There, together with another nun I went several times to the toilet with Bud-Dho.  We had to wait for a quite a while. It was clear that the lunch packets will be donated to someone else but nobody was worried about that. We had other things to reflect on then food.

I read about autopsies in the world wide web and it was mentioned that one can faint and vomit because of the strong smell. The smell shall be terrific. I am a typical super-German or maybe just a nutcase and therefore like to prepare for all the worst case scenarios of the world always. A paranoid perfectionist. One bottle of Tiger balm liquid, tissues, another balm, several bags for the big vomit in different colors, pink, white and blue, water….. We all sniffed at the tissues which got soaked in tiger balm as if it was the oxygen mask of a deep sea diver who had to face the white shark – while still at the open air and while drinking cream soda! I even put some lumps of balm into my nose.

Some people came – a family. They looked disturbed. I guessed they had to acknowledge the corpse as a family member before we can look at the corpse as a reflection for insight to arise. 

Suddenly out of the blue a man came, waving wildly and hectic ‘ênde-ende‘ (’come, come’ in Sinhalese) and then everything went – typical Sri Lankan – from Zero to 100% extremely fast, no split-second to think of escaping from the worst case scenario.

We had to change clothes and put some green Emergency-room-clothes on, a dress-up which I enjoyed. I was wearing only white during the last two years. Green is hope, or Hope is Green, as we say in German. ‘The frog jumps into the pond – plop’, the Zen masters say. For a moment I forgot that I will soon faint into oblivion. I felt like Dr Nobody or Kermit from the Muppet show.

Then we had to enter straight through a swing door- no time to think – a room…a huge room with not much inside and here it was – our Devadutha, Sadhu, the corpse, a male one.

The corpse was lying on one out of five metal tables which was placed randomly in the huge space. His head was bent backwards, the tongue sticking out bluish-grey in an awkward way. Like a stone. His toes -cramped. Around his neck a weird looking sticky scarf with flowers. The scarf was very tight, the instrument for strangling. His arms decorated with several black and white and golden beach male-jewelry – a sign of attachment, isn’t it? Quite a thin body. 58 years he stayed on this planet. It has now up to the doctors to find out if he committed suicide or got strangled by someone else with this sticky scarf.

Without any hesitation and without any preparation of the delicate minds of the female visitors the doctor (who was the man that said ‘come,come’ to us) now differently dressed – just changing colors – took a stainless steel knife. This is the moment to take a deep breath… and started cutting around ears and neck of our Devadutha, pulled the head here and there like an old football and then took the hair in his fists and with brutal emotionless force pulled the whole lot, pulled it over the face.

Hair on the head I mumbled in my mind. How weird it looks when dead. Like a dusty rag.

 The white skull with blood. A saw, not an electric high tech one of Black and Decker, but a good old reliable hand operated one. It’s quite a bit of work to cut through the skull and while the Doctor went on to produce interesting noises due to the handy-work, I checked my mind and to my big astonishment it was calm and peaceful – no agitation.

The skull broke with walnut-cracking sound apart and when the brain got taken out, we put our intellectual pride at the cramped feet of the Devadutha or heavenly messenger. Then a bit of the skin got scraped out inside the skull and then we looked in to an empty coconut shell. Nothing inside. Only blood that still was running and very reddish to the astonishment of Irena.

I smiled, felt some ease, some relief, some sort of acceptance ‘Yes, I know, it is like that’, like I knew it all the time, happiness even. Weird.

Irena looked at me and said ‘Who is the one who said she will vomit first and faint first before anybody as a chance to overtake her….now she standing here smiling and in good mood, relaxed…’

I am a skeptic. I don’t trust myself and still did not believe that this relaxation can be the end of the story.

The group of females was great and I was proud of them all. None of them shirked even a bit, all were very concentrated and followed the whole process carefully and asked keen questions which I did not understand. I didn’t mind the language barrier as I was not so interested in the medical aspect of the body. I was just standing there contemplating the body as body. Trying to understand it. Yet difficult to understand. Kayanu Passana, not an easy task.

Another doctor came and while the first doctor opened the belly area. The new doctor was taking off very carefully the skin of throat and face with a refined knife. The throat is something I connect with fear and death and while I was watching it my heart made several heart attack-jumps. I took a deep breath as there was no bad smell. And the mind noted it.

Throat, strangling, hurting of face and tongue are some of my weak points. I don’t know why but it gives me the creep. And I started directly there. Directly at my weak points. I could not believe it. And my heart was balanced to my astonishment.

Fear is some abstract really. It is a concept, Bhanthe Dhammajiva once reminded me, when I said something about it.

 Ten men entered the room and looked flabbergasted at the group of keen, green females. Males or females are the same – when the skin is peeled off.

What is the body…..just meat. It is so abstract and absurd. I wondered as to where in this mass of flesh one can see the suicide-wish.

Doctor number one is now cutting the front bones off. The liver became quite visible. His hands dive deeply into the organs. In order to throw the intestines on the table he cuts the yellow connection away which hold the intestines together – another act I was scared of. At that time he looked like a butcher to me.

The doctor number two cuts meanwhile fine layers of meat from the throat and decorate them neatly around the face. It reminds me of a bacon dish on new year’s day in Germany.

The throat got slit off, the tongue got replaced. They removed a piece of bone. Murdered so it seems. Not suicide.

Another corpse came in and now I realized what Dr Renuka meant by saying ‘you might see two or more autopsies today’.

Seeing two corpses in a room is a challenge. Suddenly something is getting clearer. Another deep breath is needed.

Thais feels a bit dizzy and soon she is leaving the room for a while. Shortly before that I asked her in a mocking way if she still find her boyfriend attractive. Without knowing or realizing I had hit a button. The boyfriend’s body looks similar to the corpse number one she said.

I asked the young assistant how many they have a day. Five or six, he answered.

The body of a young handsome guy is placed now on metal table number two. He was well built, with a cool tattoo, eyes were still fresh and shiny like fully alive looking a bit astonished, Aged 22 and got murdered, as one of the men told me with ‘this is life, isn’t it?’. His hand was slit off; someone had slit his throat as well. He was covered in blood. Yet his face was striking because it was very serene, very ‘sober’, relaxed, at ease. When they put his arms above his head to remove the clothes he looked like somebody floating relaxed in a body of water. He floated now relaxed in a body of blood.

Thais said that this impressed her the most. His expression. Despite his shocking, brutal death somehow it looked like that his mind went into a peaceful, blissful realm. Very different from the first one. He may have done something good to die so peacefully despite the brutality death.

I went from one corpse to the other. I watched the work of the forensic investigation team – measuring here and there various parts of body, taking pictures etc…

Then I went back to Asubha Kammattana (meditation on the repulsive nature of the body) and the first body was nearly skinned now and quite empty inside and the body looked like a hollow container filled with blood. One could see the spine clearly. A female doctor meanwhile did separate all the organs from each other and explained each and every organ nicely to the Nuns.

The brain in the meanwhile lost its shape and seemed to melt away like the liquid of an egg when put on a pan. It is a mess really, the inside of our body, a lump of slippery, repulsive stuff.

Difficult to distinguish the organs from each other, just a mass of mess basically. Not beautiful.

The doctor looked like a housewife who prepares dinner in an unanimous way. Human flesh, animal flesh, same-same…

The well built body got slit off and showed even more fat content than the other and even more yellow-white slippery stuff inside, it was suddenly more Asubha (non-attractiveness, loathsomeness, foulness) than the other.

I went very close to the skinned face of our first Devadutha. The teeth. Parts of the skull.

What hooked me absolutely was the skin. What a terrible trickster. Luangta Maha Boowa was right. It is amazing how it can deceive perception. Just paint on a wall. It is so thin, incredibly thin. Beauty is skin deep. Underneath directly the yellow fat and then the flesh and then the slippery stuff that gives us our life sustaining body.

I could not get my eyes from that sight. I had the feeling the answer is hidden there somehow. But I cannot get it. It is so obvious but I cannot get it yet.

Skin is very thin, Moha is very thick.

To my amazement I realized that I could even touch it all. That now I could even cut it. That was very astonishing to me. What happened to my mind that could not even look at a medical plastic figure some years ago…..?

But now all seemed so normal, so natural. Off course repulsive but not frightening.  My Austrian Pathologist friend told me (when I asked her as to how to prepare best for this sight) that I shall remember my first open cremation of body at Wat Pah Nanachat, Thailand. How it was for me there. Yes, I was nervous there too, very much because people told me all sorts of horrifying things (brain burst out like a black liquid, the body is moving up…). But when it happened my mind was cool like peppermint and all seem so natural to me, even happiness arouse. The same now happened with the autopsy.

My mind creates all this dukkha. There is not much really. Not much to fear. But my mind with its proliferation creates all these worries and paranoia.

Then we went out and while I was talking to the Nuns who smiled broadly I saw only teeth. I was fascinated because suddenly they all looked same. I did not really understand their faces anymore. I had to push my mind back to normal gear not to look too weird.

We separated.

We gave our lunch to the police men.

Later I went with Thais to the Immigration to extend her visa. It was packed with people. I was just sitting there, completely relaxed, grinning. Each and everyone around me looked like a corpse to me.

All just meat covered with a crazily thin skin. One guy was sweating and I realized that he sweat through this yellow fat which is directly under the skin.

Even the most attractive male would not shake me out of equanimity at that moment.

Attractiveness, beauty and fear are just the products of our minds.

What is attractive of a piece of raw meat covered by a thin layer of skin, which basically is nothing other than sealed fat? Like baked fat.

It is so funny to watch all this people running here and there, staring at their elaborate mobile phones, busybodies, who think they are important or beautiful or impressive or whatever. All this egos. All this busy tourists.

Life is a bit like a comedy after an autopsy.

We went outside from the Immigration Dept. and walked directly into a mass demonstration requesting for better education. I just looked at this emotional crowd and felt even more the comedian aspect of this life. This senseless, useless impotency we inflict on ourselves and on the ones near and dear to us.

I believe that each of the female of the group had different experiences on that 6th of February 2013. Each one of us experienced it differently.

One of us realized the body more as ‘just food’ or Āhāra. Another realized the quick change from life to death…..

Thais said that it was the most important day of her life.

She said that she had the feeling that a sort of burden went from her heart.

We went to meet Ven. Ananda Maha Thero, the monk who helped me with the one year visa. He is 81 years old and never had seen an autopsy. He said that only doctors and pathologists can see the truth. Now he is very keen also to see one. I shall take him to one. He said that we were very lucky to get that chance.

Yes, I feel that way during and after the autopsy. I feel a great gratitude to Most Ven. U. Dhammajiva Maha Thero who arranged this for us, when I told him after seeing my first autopsy movie at Meetirigala in December 2012. That evoked a powerful wake up effect in my heart and I was keen to see a live autopsy.

He did not hesitate one second to arrange it. Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!

Also to Dr Renuka Mahanama who gave her signature and the letter. I am really grateful for that. The Nuns and the lay females were also very grateful for the arrangements as they had the chance to reflect on the body in a deep way.

I believe that we all gained something out of it on that day which will be of great value to our practice. Seeing a live autopsy is different to a movie of an autopsy. Death is very direct. Jumps into your face. No escape. And it can shake something in the heart.

I also realized that meditation makes the heart stronger. That I have a wrong picture of myself is clear. I thought I will faint and all this but stayed cool and detached instead. I see myself in the light of ‘before meditation’. But mind definitely had got stronger due to the years of practice. I feel now more energized and not tired. Very awake. I also feel happy.

I thank the Lord Buddha more as I continue on this Path.

I hope that this autopsy report inspires you for your own meditation practice. May you all be able to see things as they really are in this very life itself!

With Metta,

Warm greetings in Dhamma,

Petra Schaffert


  1. Luangta Maha Boowa (1913-2011) was a great monk of the Thai Forest tradition. He is also considered by some to be a fully liberated monk who attained Arahantship.
  2. ‘Bud-Dho’ is a constantly repeated sound or mantra recitation sometimes used in Thai meditation. It is a form of Samatha meditation.
  3. Devadutha is an excellent parable used in Theravada Buddhism. The meaning of the term is the ‘Divine Messenger’ and babies, sick people, the elderly and corpses are considered to be divine messengers. The Lord Buddha is preached an excellent Sutta called Devadutha Sutta. A link to the sutta is given here. Devadutha Sutta
  4. MohaMoha is Delusion or ignorance (avijjā). One of three unwholesome roots (mūla) in the mind.
  5. Wat Pah Nanachat: Wat Pah Nanachat is an International Forest Monastery situated in a small forest in North-east Thailand. The late world famous great Thai monk Ajahn Chah established the monastery in 1975 to serve as a training ground for non-Thais along traditional monastic lines. The primary language of communication is English. A link to the official website of the monastery is given here. Wat Pah Nanachat
  6. Meetirigala Nissarana Vanaya Forest Monastery: This is an international Forest Monastery located at a small forest in Sri Lanka. The monastery was founded in 1968 by Mr Asoka Weeraratna. The first meditation master of the monastery was the famous Most Ven Matara Sri Gnānāraāma Maha Thero. The current meditation master of the monastery is Most Ven U. Dhammajiva Maha Thero. Since recently, the monastery has started to conduct meditation programs for the lay public. The medium of instructions is both Sinhalese and English. A link to the official website of the monastery is given here. Meetirigala Nissarana Vanaya Monastery

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