“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 opening sentence of Stiff
If Mary Roach weren’t so funny and—well, curious—some of the strange subject matter she chooses for her books might seem like fodder for a sick voyeur. But she is funny—and probably one of the most inquisitive people alive. Her desire to know about things becomes the reader’s desire to know. This is especially true in Stiff. I don’t think I am as spooked by dead bodies as some are, but before I read Stiff, I can’t say I ever thought of them as interesting. Now I do. And I’ve had the chance to think about my own body and its fate once I die.
Dead bodies—cadavers—are very useful to us. Scientists and researchers have always needed them. Through study of the dead, people have learned that blood circulates and that the heart is the pump that keeps it moving, that the brain is the center of thought. Bodies donated to body farms, where corpses are left out to decay under various conditions, help investigators understand rates of decomposition, which is useful in murder investigations. Bodies or their parts can be used in understanding how land mines injure people. Doctors use “beating-heart’ cadavers in organ transplants. Did you know that corpses were used to test the guillotine?
In the history of the world, humans in several cultures have attributed magical or medical powers to dead bodies or dead body parts, and countless graves have been robbed to provide those parts. (OK, lots of graves were robbed for science as well, and there are some wild tales about that in this book.)
To me, one of the most interesting things that cadavers are used for is in test crashes and weapons testing. Yes, there are those ‘dummies’ for car crashes, but they can’t quite replicate what happens to people. (According to Roach, for every cadaver used to test and develop airbags, 147 lives are saved.) And then, we need to know what happens in airplane accidents, too. Bodies can be used in simulated air crashes. The information learned has helped investigators in deciding if a plane accident was truly an accident due to mechanical failure or the work of terrorists. Bodies can also be used to test bullet-proof vests and other equipment meant to save lives.
Despite her great sense of humor, Roach treats cadavers with respect, including all of the ones she meets in researching this book. Others who work with dead bodies—folks in medical school (you’ll be happy to know that your surgeon practices on dead bodies before s/he tries out new skills on you), researchers, morticians—all appear to have the same respect. Even the people who crash bodies to learn about car and plane accidents have a protocol of respectfulness that both surprised and comforted me.
Although we hate to think about it, we all die. Stiff addresses the (philosophical) problem of what we should do with our dead bodies. This goes far beyond the choices of burial or cremation. There are many opportunities in scientific research. And for those who want to be buried, there are new considerations of having a ‘green’ burial, one that is ecologically sound. Sort of like composting. The same is true of deciding in favor of ‘water reduction’ (or, less euphemistically, ‘tissue digestion’) instead of cremation, another sterile and less-polluting choice.
Crazy as it seems, our dead bodies can be as useful to humankind as anything we do while living. Finding out just how useful is the wild ride that is Stiff.
High school housekeeping: Stiff is an engaging introduction to how research works in real life. I think it’s the kind of book the framers of the Common Core are hoping you’ll read. Putting aside their naïve disdain for fiction, they are right about the need to also read this sort of nonfiction—it will open a new window on reality and may pique your interest in science. All in a book that you can’t put down.