Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (Roach)

Book #15, read early 2019

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (Mary Roach) 

A friend generously gifted me this book, and it’s actually quite wonderful. Although Stiff is over 15 years old now, it’s probably still approximately as up-to-date as your knowledge of what happens to dead bodies needs to be. And oh, the possibilities… you can go to a body farm, get strapped into a test crash setup, get freeze-dried-composted, and more.

I’m not sure I even knew this before I started reading Stiff. But, as luck would have it, my recently-departed family member had in fact already chosen to be donated “to science,” in this case a local medical college, and I had to sign a consent form to forestall legal troubles. Many family members don’t know exactly what could happen to their loved ones’ remains in the name of science, but I sure did. I can’t say I enjoy those thoughts, but they don’t keep me up at night. 

When Joe Blow dies, his body is the closest thing left to him on earth. It’s not exactly wrong to say “Joe Blow is at the funeral parlor now,” about his embalmed remains. Everyone knows what you’re talking about. At the same time, it’s not exactly right, either. The medical college isn’t actually doing anything to my father per se, as my father the person has ceased to exist. (Reminder to self to re-read about the metaphysics of death again soon)

As jocular as Stiff manages to be, it’s still not for the truly squeamish and faint of heart. Maybe many of the people who would be completely unfazed by its content are already on the inside somehow – funeral directors, medical students? For those of us in the middle, it’s hard to say whether reading something like Stiff is character building or just needlessly upsetting. 

I’m inclined to believe that modern life is sanitary and death-removed to excess, and that exposing oneself to such matters deliberately is probably good. It’s not like living bodies aren’t gross, we’re just accustomed to them. Maybe it’s worth getting just a touch used to the thought of dead ones, too.