My Dead Body review – the skull crack makes even the medical students wince

This masterly autopsy documentary shows one woman’s rare, brave gift to science – but it never shies away from the truth

‘I try not to think about it too much,” says Jo Crews. “It’s a bit of a mind game, as a mum.” Jo is the mother of Toni Crews. Her daughter died at the age of 30, four years after being diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer. It began in her tear duct and, despite the removal of her eye and much treatment thereafter, spread quickly and terminally throughout her body. She left that body to medical science, an unusual decision in itself. Only about 1,300 people a year make such a donation, which means that few medical professionals ever get the chance to examine a disease as rare as Toni’s. But she also left it for public display and anatomical examination, so that it could be used for teaching en masse, and for filming, so that it could educate thousands of times more people than usual.

Which is how we are here, watching My Dead Body (Channel 4) and the dissection of Toni’s gift by Prof Claire Smith, head of anatomy at Brighton and Sussex Medical School. She and her colleagues approach Toni and the task with a kindly efficiency. They work out how best to carry out the procedures (how many slices of brain, for example, can you scan without overloading the equipment?) and which experts should take over in each of the dozen workshops that will be held to maximise the educational yield from what they have been given.

The filming of the dissection is masterly. The truth of it is not shied away from – this is very clearly a dead body, and only enough of the undertakings are shown to convey the practicalities of the endeavour without tipping into voyeurism. The most striking moment is among the earliest. Because they want to start with the brain and the tumours there – which are the ones that killed her – the skull must be sawn through and taken off. The force applied, and the cracking sound as the top of her head comes away, makes even the medical students wince. It is a moment that unites us all, and is well used as a bridge between what could otherwise be a jarring contrast between their eagerness to peer and prod at the medically fascinating innards – natural, of course, but there is an irreducible bizarreness to seeing it on camera.

But that, the film-makers seem to have decided, is enough to evoke the surreality without edging into horror. So we see – and from a little distance – the chest wall being gently lifted off and set aside, the sun glowing for a moment through the skin between the ribs – rather than the business of its separation.

These scenes are the groundbreaking ones, but the film-makers’ commendable restraint means that the bulk of the programme is devoted to Toni’s life story, told in her words (taken from her diary and social media posts) and – with the help of AI – her voice. It is supplemented by interviews with her family and friends, and footage from home videos that show her as a toddler through to the young woman she would not move beyond.

It is also – terribly and unexpectedly – the story of an abusive relationship, which Toni was in for 10 years from the age of 16. “Terrible memories and I was so unhappy. He took the healthiest years of my life. Even through cancer, I was assaulted and emotionally abused.” But the diagnosis and the removal of her eye gave her the courage to take their children and leave him. “I’m no longer in hell every day,” she recorded. “She was just getting herself set on her feet, really,” remembers her father, Jason, when the cancer came back and it became clear that little could be done.

In the end, My Dead Body is a documentary about all kinds of courage. The courage to face terrible illness (Toni’s grandmother recalls seeing her face when she got back from the hospital and knew she must have received news that it was terminal – “but by the time she got to the back garden and the children, she was fine”); the courage to leave someone you have feared for a decade; the courage of a parent to go on after the very worst thing that can happen has happened; the courage to accede to a child’s wishes even when you can hardly bear to think about what that means. You don’t have to be in the lecture hall with Smith and her students to feel you have been enlarged and educated by Toni’s presence.

Contributor

Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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