February 01, 2013

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

I've read a couple of other books by Mary Roach with mixed results.  In actuality, this was really the one I wanted to read, but I wasn't able to get my hands on it until recently.  And actually it was good timing, just a few weeks back I went and saw the Body Worlds exhibit (which is mentioned in this book) and my reaction to it was only a little more uncomfortable than my reaction to this. 

For those of you who don't know what Body Worlds is, it's an exhibit of human cadavers that have undergone Plastination and then displayed around the world.  The first reaction is a good five minutes of your heart going hollow and trying to adjust to what you're seeing.  Once that distance is reached then it becomes very interesting to see the exhibit and the bodies up close.  This book is a lot like that because it deals with the uses of cadavers throughout history and even now.  It covers such things as organ donation, whole body donation, crast test dummy research, cadaver cannibalism, and a few other things.  Roach personally attends a lot of the different research facilities and body donation centers to get a personal look at what happens to the cadavers.  Although she does not try out the cannibalism obviously.

Roach talks to a lot of people in this book for the interviews and research on cadavers.  And everyone was highly respectful of the bodies and their contributions.  It was rather nice to see.  Sure some were a bit strange, but when you're working with the dead it probably draws a unique sort of people to the field.  I'm not sure I could ever work with dead bodies, I much prefer the living myself, but I admire the people who can.  And even the dead bodies themselves Roach is mostly respectful.  I won't deny that she cracks a few jokes and makes a couple of odd observations, but with such an uncomfortable topic, it isn't surprising and it isn't done with any malice.

This isn't a book of pure research.  Roach inserts humor and her own scientific observations.  But I guarantee it's a lot more knowledge about the subject than the average person would know.  I certainly learned a lot.  And it also reinforced my want to donate my body to a body farm when I die.  But it's not for everyone.  If you have strict beliefs about bodies and where they are supposed to go after death due to moral or religious reasons, you might not appreciate this book too much.  And there were a couple boring parts.  For instance, the shroud of turin chapter didn't interest me at all, and the older uses of bodies I didn't find as interesting as the modern stuff.  There's only so much I can read about body snatchers taking bodies to anatomy schools before I want to move on to something else.  Largely though this is an interesting book with a lot of information that was surprising.

This is one of the better books by Roach that I've read.  If she comes out with another interesting science book, I'll probably read it.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Copyright 2003
303 pages

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