Lit Crit Lite – April 2011

Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

by Jean Philips

Gallup Journey StiffThere is something awkward about introducing oneself to the literary community of a new town with a piece about corpses.  I’m not sure if it helps that the town is not actually new to me; that in fact I’ve been residing in Gallup for well over two years now.  It seems more unseemly, in fact.  For over two years, I have not found the time to contribute a syllable to our town’s esteemed Gallup Journey, but somehow I manage to make room in my schedule when the topic is dead bodies.

I imagine that Mary Roach faced similar misgivings when she embarked on writing her first book.  Of all the books that could have served as Roach’s literary debut, she chose to write Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

Not that I need to imagine how she felt.  Roach is not one of those science writers who hide behind the voice of an omniscient, “just-the-facts” narrator.  She shares, for example, her suspicion that many of her friends, upon discovering that she planned to write not merely an article but a full length book about cadavers, had come to believe she had moved from being quirky to being not okay, and recounts the disconcerting glance she got from a librarian when, after checking out a series of similarly morbid titles for her research, she asked for a copy of Proceedings of the Ninth Stapp Car Crash Conference. I, for one, am glad that Ms. Roach overcame her understandable self-consciousness and gave the world this gem of a book.

Stiff is a celebration of the heroism of those who have left their bodies to be used for all manner of scientific benefit.  Examples range from the relatively active endeavor of brain-dead patients allowing their still-beating hearts to be removed for life-saving transplants, to the much more passive occupation of cadavers left to decay on the grounds of the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, where scientists observe them carefully to build on the scientific knowledge that informs murder investigations.

I would not recommend Stiff to all of my friends.  Those with closely-held beliefs concerning the afterlife of souls and the resurrection of the body, like my mom (who gave this book to me), will generally, I think, fare quite well.  Stiff is not about souls.  It does contain a fascinating account of a physician who, intent on learning the weight of the human soul, allowed various patients to expire atop a scale, where he watched the needle for slight fluctuation at the time of death (he decided the soul weighed 3/4 of an ounce).  It is not about death or dying. Stiff is primarily about remains, about what is left behind when a body ceases to be a living person.  For those of my friends with closely-held beliefs about the body itself, who may have strong objections to doing anything with human remains but giving them a proper burial, I might suggest giving this book a miss.  A worldview which perceives the body of a departed soul as continuing to have mystical significance is going to be fundamentally incompatible with a chatty narrative that recounts the use of cadavers as crash test dummies or the use of decapitated heads as practice material for plastic surgeons in training.

That is not to say that Roach is irreverent or dismissive of those who have qualms about using, rather than burying, the bodies of the departed.  She is exuberant, entranced by the weirdness of people, and prone to liberal use of asterisks to share extra tidbits of weirdness that she can’t let drop but that don’t quite fit into the narrative flow*.  But she engages, often quite tenderly, with the emotions and beliefs of scientists and family members who have confronted big and difficult questions about the use of human remains for scientific inquiry.  She begins her discussion of cadavers by recounting her own first experience of seeing a dead body – at her mother’s funeral – and renders a heartfelt account of an emotional funeral held by an anatomy class to honor those whose bodies they had dissected during the semester.

While Stiff at many times addresses serious ethical issues and touching emotional concerns, it is interesting and entertaining throughout.  In Chapter 2, for example, we learn about the great lengths that scientists have taken to procure bodies in times and places in which dissecting cadavers was considered the height of disrespect for the deceased.  In eighteenth century Scotland, Roach informs us, it was commonplace for scientists to purchase cadavers stolen from graves.  One such scientist paid an innkeeper and his friend for a body of a guest who had taken ill and died before paying his bill.  The sellers, pleased to discover how lucrative cadaver sales were, soon became steady suppliers to the scientist, who asked no questions even when the condition of the cadavers made it fairly obvious that the suppliers were selling him their own murder victims.  The scientist was never punished, but the suppliers were hanged and – as a further punishment – dissected.  In Chapter 7, we learn of a Parisian doctor in the 1930s who crucified a number of cadavers in an effort to prove the authenticity of the shroud of Turin, and Chapter 10 examines the use of material culled from human remains in medical elixirs in various points of history.  If, lacking more wholesome subjects to occupy your thoughts, you cast your mind about for the possible uses to which cadavers could be put, there is a decent chance that all of your ideas will be covered in this book.

If you are among the many people in the world who feel deeply about the need to respect the souls of the departed through solemn rituals over the bodies they have left behind, Stiff may not be the book for you.  You might prefer one of Roach’s later books, such as Bonk: the Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, or Packing for Mars: the Curious Science of Life in the Void (her titles speak for themselves – Mary Roach is in love with curiousness).  Those of you who believe that remains are just that – the physical matter left behind when the person is no longer there – Stiff should be on your reading list.  If, like Ms. Roach, you are curious, or slightly morbid, or just enjoy a witty read, go check Stiff out.

* Did you know, for example, that according to the owners of the Pink’s hot dog stand in L.A., Orson Welles once polished off eighteen hot dogs at one sitting?  This morsel appeared in a footnote below a discussion of experiments done on cadavers’ stomachs to see how far they could be filled before they would rupture.

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