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First off, I would like to be Mary Roach. Her life seems awesome – she does a lot of research and interviews a ton of fascinating people, and then she writes a non-technical (highly entertaining) book about it.

I want in.

In one of her earliest book-length works, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, she explores the history and science of human cadavers. Mostly she’s interested in what we use cadavers for these days but she does delve into the history of cadavaric treatment.

(Cadaveric? Spellcheck has no clue what to do with this word.)

Roach’s narrative runs the gamut, from plastic surgery practice on cadaver heads through crash test dummies and all the way to disposal of human remains. Along the way, Roach continuously intersperses the narrative with her own (often entertaining) responses to the close proximity to cadavers in myriad forms. Particularly gripping are her accounts of a visit to the Body Farm and her observation of an organ recovery procedure.

When she visits the Body Farm, a research facility operated by the University of Tennessee Anthropology Department, she explains that little is left to the imagination. To cope with the assault on her senses, she makes some mental changes in her observation skills. For instance, she renames maggots “haciendas” because that’s a pretty word. She then proceeds to describe an encounter with said “haciendas” in striking detail.

It’s kind of beautiful, this man’s skin with these tiny white slivers embedded just beneath its surface. It looks like expensive Japanese rice paper. You tell yourself these things. (65)

Roach moves through various subjects related to cadavers with the same level of fascination and dismay. Throughout, she treats the subject of cadavers with respect, making sure to draw a clear distinction between dying humans and dead bodies. Dying, she posits, is terrible and heartbreaking. Dead is factual, and relatively emotionless. Most of the professionals she encounters on her journey feel the same way – they are able to function mentally by dissociating person-hood from the cadavers they work on.

There’s a particularly moving discussion of the human soul as it relates to death in a later chapter on beating-heart cadavers – those kept on ventilators short term, in preparation for organ recovery. Roach mixes history and science beautifully in this chapter, exploring various anatomical seats of emotion (liver, heart, brain) and discussing theories on where the soul sits and (most directly related to her work) when it leaves the body. These days, we tend to agree that a body with a dead brain is no longer a person. That cultural agreement doesn’t, it would appear from Roach’s narrative, prevent us from being both transfixed and disturbed when we view a beating heart absent its natural surroundings (the body).

fourstarOverall, this book is a fascinating read, and one that immediately suggests other related texts. I’m also considering becoming a solid Mary Roach fan. I’ll have to read at least one other work, but if she is able to treat all subjects with the expert combination of solid research, respect, and engaging wit as she demonstrates in Stiff, I am well on the road to fandom.

Comment to win a copy of Stiff. Bonus points and my personal admiration if you share your thoughts on body donation. What conditions, if any, would you impose on the donation of your postmortem body? Or would you donate it at all – and why (or why not)?

Cadaver Week: Stiff
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