Thursday, January 29, 2015

(Audio)book review: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Written by: Mary Roach

Published: 2003

Synopsis: Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers some willingly, some unwittingly have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. In this fascinating account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them (Via Goodreads)


“Death. It doesn't have to be boring.”

When I decided I wanted to try and read more non-fiction in 2015* I knew that Mary Roach would be among the first few authors I read. Her popular science books Gulp: Adventures of the Alimentary Canal, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void have made the blogger rounds over the years and I've always made note to read her eventually. I ended up decided to start my Roach voyage with Stiff for a specific reason, death fascinates and terrifies me in equal measure.

As a non-religious lady I have no illusions that I will be reincarnated after death or find myself in a fluffy or fiery post-life environment but I find it absolutely inconceivable to imagine not being conscious. That's what scares me about death, the idea of not being me anymore. This was something that weighed heavily on me as a kid, I used to get worked up about the idea of dying so i tried to get past it by learning about death. This is a big reason why I'm a horror fan and more likely than not why I chose zombies as my area of research. They are, after all, a physical example of life without consciousness.

I might be more comfortable with the idea of death now but when faced with the reality of it I revert back to that childhood panic. In biology class I always loved dissecting hearts and eyeballs but put a full frog in me and I couldn't do it any more, the abstract suddenly became all too real. When I was 14 my mum sat me and my sisters down to have a discussion about organ donation and whether we wanted to "opt in or out". On the one hand of course I wanted to donate my organs to help someone else live, but to donate my organs means I'm dead and that wasn't a concept I was in any way ready to handle. I also have this irrational fear of being cremated and my ashes being separated between two locations. It's ridiculous because I don't believe that I'll be conscious (whether spiritually or physically) to be aware of this separation but I also have this weird need to be kept together after death. It's this whole big thing basically.

That's where this book comes in, this wonderfully, terrifying book that wraps up all of my fears and concerns in a handy 303 pages. The book not only looks at the various uses for cadavers but the common fears and concerns about death and our physical existence after it. One of the earliest chapters I found most interesting was to do with cadavers in medical schools. I knew cadavers were used for anatomy lessons but I didn't know that students often used the same cadaver for an entire year. The idea of the students bonding with their cadaver and eventually holding memorial services for them was actually really beautiful. Roach quotes one student at one of these memorials:
“One young woman's tribute describes unwrapping her cadaver's hands and being brought up short by the realization that the nails were painted pink. "The pictures in the anatomy atlas did not show nail polish", she wrote. "Did you choose the color? Did you think that I would see it? I wanted to tell you about the inside of your hands. I want you to know you are always there when I see patients. When I palpate an abdomen, yours are the organs I imagine. When I listen to a heart, I recall holding your heart.”
Death is a deeply personal thing and it's nice to know that even though a certain amount of distance is often needed for people who work frequently with cadavers, people who donate their bodies are still respected and their gift is appreciated. Because as the book demonstrates, if science hadn't had access to cadavers we probably wouldn't have half of the medical and societal advances that we do today. And at the end of the day I kind of think that was what this book was about. Yes it was about giving a historical account of the role of cadavers in science and related fields, but it's also about normalising death and giving people the information they need to consider donating themselves to science. We've all benefited so much from the cadavers that came before us that it's almost selfish to keep our bodies complete and whole only to be buried and left to rot.
It is astounding to me, and achingly sad, that with eighty thousand people on the waiting list for donated hearts and livers and kidneys, with sixteen a day dying there on that list, that more then half of the people in the position H's family was in will say no, will choose to burn those organs or let them rot. We abide the surgeon's scalpel to save our own lives, out loved ones' lives, but not to save a stranger's life. H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you'd call her.”
There are of course religious and health reasons why someone wouldn't want to donate organs or their body to science and the book doesn't throw any judgement on people who make that decision. It's more aimed at the families who choose to opt out because the idea of splitting their husband or father or brother into pieces is too painful, even though the deceased person checked yes. It's about showing all the different ways that donations of limbs or organs help make life safer and better for future generations. It's about taking that frog and turning it back into the separate pieces so that you can once again see the big picture.  As Roach says:
"It's the reason we say "pork" and "beef" instead of "pig" and "cow."
But it's not all a PSA about donating bodies, I promise. There are gory and insane chapters about head transplants and cannibalism. Listening to the awful human concoctions people across the world (so much urine and feces) used to treat illnesses makes me so happy I live in the 21st century. I am glad that if I go to the doctor with a sore throat or painful back I don't have to worry about the phrase essence of gallbladder** popping up. And while more bodies could always be donated to science, at least we don't have med students paying their entry into school with dead bodies anymore.

Being a pop science book written by a journalist, this book is very accessible for non-science buffs. Having a body and knowing that they are things that exist is about as much prior knowledge as you need to have. It's funny and engaging and while I guess for people who are against donating or experimenting on cadavers the lighter tone might appear disrespectful and cavalier, I felt like she gave the appropriate gravitas when the situation called for it. A warning though, there are so pretty graphic descriptions of both human and animal dissection and experimentation so if things of this ilk are likely to turn your stomach I would maybe consider giving it a miss, or at least be prepared to skip ahead.

*Non-PhD related non-fiction because I already read a metric tonne of that stuff. 

**for example. I didn't take notes while I listened to this chapter so i can't remember exact titles but ugh, so much gross.


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