The two men from Science Support rolled a large box off the back of their truck. In the box were two human heads, surrounded by ice packs filled with small gelled beads that resembled Dippin’ Dots ice cream. As soon as I signed for the shipment, the gentlemen slammed shut the back of their truck and screeched out of the parking lot. This exchange was typical. The Science Support fellows regularly brought deliveries of torsos, heads, and other assorted viscera.
The heads in this Science Support box belonged, respectively, to a gentleman of 80 and a lady of 78. Each head came with long identification sheets. The sheets didn’t give us their names or where they were from, but did provide a whole list of superfluous fun facts like “Head No.1 is allergic to shellfish, tomatoes, morphine, and strawberries,” and “Head No. 2 has brain cancer and is prone to hay fever.”
There is little chance my two heads could have known each other in real life, but I wanted to imagine they were two lovers separated by war. The Crusades, perhaps. The Crusades seemed like a romantic, violence-soaked backdrop for this sort of thing. Maybe they were victims of a single guillotine blade during the French Revolution. Or perhaps the early American frontier—had they been scalped? I pulled back the gel ice packs to peek in. No, no, these heads had their scalps intact. Regardless, here they were, together, on their way to the eternal pyre.
Hesitant, I peeked into the box of heads. I toyed with the idea of not unwrapping them. They could go straight in the cremation machine, right? My boss, Mike, popped up behind my shoulder, always watching. “You gotta take those gel packs out; those aren’t good for the cremation machine.”
“Won’t I have to take the heads out to do that?” I asked.
“Yeah, well, let’s see what kind of woman you are,” he replied, arms crossed.
I gingerly pulled out the man’s head (No. 1, allergic to shellfish, tomatoes, morphine, and strawberries). It was squishy, heavier than I expected it to be. Roughly the weight of a bowling ball but far more unruly, thanks to his brain distributing mass unevenly. A person really needed two hands to hold it.
“Alas, poor Yorick!” I proclaimed to my head. Our literary references for decapitated heads were at the ready, a kind of funeral-industry improv game.
Mike finished off with a rambling story about Joel-Peter Witkin, the avant-garde artist who procured heads from Mexican morgues and photographed them in elaborate arrangements alongside hermaphrodites and dwarves in mythical costume. Witkin said his desire to create this dark imagery came from witnessing a horrific car accident as a young boy, where a small girl was decapitated, her life-less head rolling to a stop at his feet. Mike always had to win the prize for esoterica.
I admired people, like Head No. 1 and Head No. 2, who had given up on a traditional funeral and the idea of post-death “dignity” for the good of research. It was très moderne.