Friday, January 15, 2010

Book review: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

It just occurred to me that there’s been an awful lot of dead people here on FMS lately. I mean, I guess that’s always been the case what with the BtVS and the zombies and the vampires and the True Blood (when is S2 coming out on DVD???!!!???) and the Sandman comics and the slasher movies. But also I just gave up on Bringing Out the Dead by Joe Connolly because I couldn’t get into it (ambulance driver in Hell’s Kitchen who’s haunted by those he didn’t save). And I just devoured Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach – which is nonfiction and also about dead people. Mr. Mouse thinks I have a problem.

That may be so, but what is definitely so is that Stiff is a very excellent book. Chapter by chapter the author explores all that the human dead have gone through in the last 2,000 or so years, what they’ve given to the living and what the living have taken from them. From surgeons practicing their technique on cadavers to how body snatching supported the birth of human dissection; from how knowledge of the decay of human remains helps law enforcement solve murders to the role cadavers play in studying impact tolerance for car manufacturers and sports medicine; from medicinal cannibalism and reanimation of body parts to embalming and burial vs. cremation vs. composting, Roach leaves no headstone unturned.

But she does so wonderfully, in articulate, funny and sensitive words, not shying away from the gruesome side of her subject. She states baldly that many people whom she met during the course of writing this book thought she was a ghoul, but also says that many of the people she interviewed, those who work with the dead on a daily basis, did so reluctantly, worried that those of us reading the book would think them ghouls as well. Of utmost importance to her was to maintain the dignity of the cadavers. While Roach uses humor to keep the morbidity of her subject from becoming overwhelming (“The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens and nothing is expected of you.”), she is matter-of-factly respectful.

This book is not about dying and the accompanying pain and sadness for the dying person and their loved ones; there is no laughing at that here. But as we follow the bodies around, observing them in all their different situations, we are able to meet these people “long forgotten for their contributions while alive, but immortalized in the pages of books and journals” and realize there’s far more to being dead than just lying there.

Thanks very much to Eli from work for suggesting this book to me!

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