What are the key events that happen in chapter twelve of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Chapter twelve of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is set in 1951, and it is in this chapter that Henrietta is finally laid to rest. Before that happens, however, Doctor George Gey requests an autopsy on her body so he can retrieve some more tissue samples. Unlike the laws which did not require any permission to take such samples from Henrietta while she was living, the law says he has to get her husband's permission to harvest them now that she is dead.

Day agrees, but only after the people at Johns Hopkins convince him that this will eventually benefit his children and only if the autopsy does not leave any visible damage to his wife's body. Doctor Gey's assistant, Mary, is sent to assist with the partial autopsy. Despite the fact that she has been dealing with tissue from corpses for years, this is the first time Mary has actually seen a dead body and she nearly retches as she watches Dr. Wilbur, the pathologist, cut Henrietta open and begin to take pieces of her internal organs. 

Nearly all of Henrietta's organs had been under attack by cancer.

Tumors the size of baseballs had nearly replaced her kidneys, bladder, ovaries, and uterus. And her other organs were so covered in small white tumors it looked as if someone had filled her with pearls.

Wilbur determined her official cause of death to be poisoning from all of the toxins which stayed in her body because it was unable to release them through the urethra (which was squeezed shut by tumors). It is hard for Mary to look at this body impersonally once she notices that Henrietta's toenail polish is a little chipped. Somehow this detail makes Henrietta a real person to Mary, though Mary has been helping to grow the HeLa cells in the laboratory.

After several days, Henrietta's body is returned, on a rainy day, to Clover where the family displays it for several days (also rainy) of viewing and a funeral. Sadie also notices Henrietta's chipped toenail polish and immediately starts to cry. She realizes now how much pain Henrietta must have been in to let them get into this condition. 

Henrietta is going to be buried in the back of the property, just as other members of her family have been; however, there are so many other caskets there that her cousins keep thumping into them with their shovels as they try to dig her grave. Finally they bury Henrietta in a grave near her mother's tombstone, and suddenly the skies open up in a torrent of rain and wind. 

A nearby barn roof is torn off and flies over the grave as the cousins are trying to fill the hole and protect the casket. Trees are uprooted and a nearby relative's house is blown over in the storm, killing the cousin inside it. Later, when everything about Henrietta's cells is discovered, one of Henrietta's cousins says, looking back,

“We shoulda knew she was tryin to tell us somethin with that storm.” 

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