Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Why I Read It: I think I was hooked on the concept of the author's series-like titles (Stiff, Gulp, Bonk, Spooked...), though they're just so named for marketing purposes, really. But I'm always up for a new science title.

Summary: A million ways to be used after you die.

My Thoughts: The underlying message the author is trying to get across is that if your body is "donated to science" it doesn't mean that it'll end up as a skeleton hanging in a classroom. It's not a cautionary tale, though, but a journey - through blood, guts, bones, brain matter, etc. - through the realities of today's various forms of cadaveric research.

It really is amazing how many ways human cadavers are used in this country alone, especially when one considers our general squeamishness, and our still somewhat Puritanical thoughts on the sanctity of the entire body as the vessel of the soul. The Swedes are experimenting with turning people into fertilizers (could have happened by now, the book was 12 years old when I read it). Several countries have spoken to an American doctor who successfully transplanted monkey heads onto other monkey bodies, and thinks he can do so for human heads (onto other human bodies, of course).

The author attacks the story with humor, which, of course, was the only way to do it. There's fatalism ingrained in us now, in ways we never had it before. We can at least mildly joke about the idea and the utterly unavoidable finality of death, if not about death of specific people around the time they die. It certainly helps balance out the goriness and gruesomeness of the details of human decapitated cadaver heads being used as stand-ins for...well, living human heads in plastic surgery training classes.

Toward that end, that's one of the earliest questions posed in this book. When someone checks off "donate my body to science," is it fair for them to end up as body-less cosmetic surgery mannequins? or crash test dummies? In the case of the former, I say, sure. Just give them free face lifts for life. Throw some perks at them.

Another question is, should we know? And by we, I mean friends and family. Should we have any inside information as to how the body of a deceased loved one is used? Should we be privy to the dissection at the medical school? Should we see the body decomposing at a cadaver farm? Should we know that the body of Uncle Frank was struck in the clavicle by a machine replicating a car/pedestrian accident?

The book is not for the faint of stomach, but I will say that it is, scientifically, one of the most fascinating tomes I've ever read. Good books make you think, and boy, do I have some thinking to do.


  1. I read this one a couple of years ago. I am terrible about retaining what I read, but I do remember the thing about exchanging heads - eek! (Wasn't there a movie about that - maybe it was just exchanging brains).

    It also got me interested in the body farm at U of Tennessee. I read a novel by Jefferson Bass (a combination of the names of Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson). Bass founded the body farm. He also has some non-fiction that is on my to-be-read list.

    I am an organ donor, but so far have drawn the line at donating my entire body. Probably has something to do with wanting to maintain my privacy even after death. Not necessarily logical, but that's the way it is.


  2. Well, there was Face-Off with John Travolta and Nicholas Cage, The Man With Two Brains, with Steve Martin...

    I think religion has ruined most of us for considering our bodies as part of the grand nutrient cycle of the planet, and as such we think we have to carry dignity beyond our death beds. I talk big now, but I can't fathom having something like the things in this book happen to me (even if "me" is gone). Maybe I'll change my thinking later, but right now it's a gut reaction. I can hear my dad now as I say it in my head: "No thank you!"

  3. I finally found the name of the movie where there was a brain transplant - Who is Julia? with Mare Winningham. Ouch. Hard to admit I watched that.