Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
By Mary Roach
W. W. Norton and Company April 2003
From the lovely local library
Mary Roach set off on an investigation to find out about alternate roles for human bodies. She interviewed scientists and went to research facilities to find out how cadavers were used in the past, present, and how they may be used in the future. Readers learn about the answers gained from car crash tests and crashed airplanes. We find out about the bizarre “medicines” that were crafted from body parts in early centuries. Roach grapples with what she wants done with her own body, and considers alternate practices, such as water reduction (where the body is reduced to about 2% of its former weight) and human compost.
So this book seems like a strange choice. It can be a conversation stopper to tell people you are reading a book about dead bodies. But I’ve never been a squeamish person, and I had no cause for worry. While this book is very informative, it is not gratuitous. I think if you can handle the standard anatomy and physiology class, you should be all set.
Ms. Roach approaches the subject with both a sense of respect and a very large sense of humor. She writes in the forward about her own experience with losing her mother and remarks that, “This book is not about death as in dying. Death, as in dying, is sad and profound. There is nothing funny about losing someone you love, or about being the person about to be lost. This book is about the already dead, the anonymous, the behind-the-scenes dead.” This respect is carried throughout, regardless of the bizarre situations in which Roach encounters the deceased.
The humor in these situations comes out of our bizarre cultural willingness to deem some things as acceptable and others as not. “Off-putting as cadaveric medicine may be, it is – like cultural differences in cuisine – mainly a matter of what you’re accustomed to. Treating rheumatism with bone marrow or scrofula with sweat is scarcely more radical or ghoulish than treating, say, dwarfism with human growth hormone. We see nothing distasteful in injections of human blood, yet the thought of soaking in it makes us cringe. I’m not advocating a return to medicinal earwax, but a little calm is in order.”
If you want to read a non-fiction book that will teach you new things and make you laugh out loud, Ms. Roach is your go-to writer. Reading Stiff may make you reconsider what you want to do with your own body…or it could just make that weird guy on the train move a little farther away from you. You are parading around with a book about dead bodies, after all.