Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers - Mary Roach Death is something most in Western society are not comfortable talking about. Although it's an inevitable part of life, the final part, humans as a whole would prefer to put it out of their minds- as if denying that you will one day cease to exist will stop it from happening. Talking of death makes others uncomfortable, and showing an interest in the subject is a quick way to be labeled as "strange" or "crazy". The loss of a loved one is often as troubling as facing our own mortality. Once a loved one has passed, the family must arrange for the body to be handled in the way specified by the deceased, mourn their loss at a funeral or memorial service, oversee burial or cremation, and then it's over and life must go on. Not all bodies are left to rest right away, however. Many people donate their healthy organs to save the lives of strangers in need of a transplant. Others still donate their whole cadavers to science through willed bodies programs, in the hopes of making a different kind of impact in death. But what exactly happens to a body willed to scientific study? This is just the question Mary Roach set out to answer in "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers". Mary traveled all over the world for the sake of researching this book, finding out the different fates these cadavers meet.

As the author explains, eighty percent of bodies donated to universities and medical centers wind up as hands-on training for anatomy classes. Over the course of a year, students extensively study the inner workings of their specimen, and usually close out the course with some sort of memorial service for the people they have spent so much time with, yet know so little about. All anatomical gifts are required by law to be cremated upon completion of their various duties. Roach also visited a mortuary school, where students perfect their skills on real cadavers. A very controversial use of willed cadavers is experimentation, particularly car crash studies to judge bodily damage sustained in various accident scenarios, for the purpose of perfecting automobile safety. The author takes you into one such study to show the threshold of force a human shoulder can withstand. The military also uses cadavers to test the effectiveness of combat gear in minimizing injury to soldiers. Another use the author delves into takes place at the University of Tennessee, in an area know as the "Body Farm", where hundreds of corpses in a myriad of conditions are left to rot, while carefully examined regularly. This facility operates to increase our knowledge of human decomposition for use in forensics- identifying decaying bodies and solving mysterious deaths. There seems to be no limit to the areas of study cadavers are used in, but Mrs. Roach covers many of the interesting uses throughout her book.

She also examines how bodies have been used throughout history. Extensive research has particularly gone into the use of tissue and bodily fluids in remedies and pharmacology, a practice existing since before written history. From drinking urine to cure jaundice, to seventeenth-century druggists combining human fat or menstrual blood with various herbs and marketing them to cure a slew of minor (or not-so-minor) afflictions, Mary Roach exposes a part of human history few have the stomach to think about. Even human fetuses, the blood of infants, and decaying human flesh were prescribed regularly at some point in time.

Roach also speaks briefly of two newly introduced alternatives to burial or cremation for families to consider. A woman in Sweden is marketing her idea to freeze-dry cadavers before interring them in a shallow grave to turn to compost and fertilize a tree or plant of the family's choosing as a memorial to their loved one. This method is very "green", as well as cost-effective. It appeals greatly to environmentalists, but some have a difficult time degrading their loved ones to fertilizer. The other new method Roach introduces to the reader is referred to as "water reduction". A cadaver is put into a vat of water and lye. The vat is then sealed and pressurized, leaving the body as liquid and extremely fragile bone. The liquid drains out of the vat, and the bone remnants can then be boxed up and buried. This is very effective as it allows the body to take up less reality in a cemetery, making more room for others. Though both methods are controversial for one reason or other, they both show promise in simplifying the disposal of human remains.

"Stiff" is a comprehensive look at "life" after death. Roach uses vast amounts of humor to lessen the grave attitude a book on death could easily project. I laughed out loud many times at the author's witticisms and lighthearted look at a gruesomely interest subject. She has delved deep into history and culture to uncover little-known facts (and secrets), and uses lay terms alongside vivid definitions to be easily understood by anyone who picks it up. I give it five out of five stars.