Death makes us uneasy. The absoluteness of it often prompts nervous tittering, as we wish to make the ugly facts disappear. But if accepting death enough to joke about it and ourselves represents the healthiest and most adult attitude we can take toward it, then Mary Roach's STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers may be seriously beneficial to your health.
Roach started out writing for the San Francisco Zoological Society and has since moved on to writing science- and humor-related stories for Salon.com, GQ, Vogue, The New York Times Magazine and other outlets. However, it may be safe to say that Roach is less a science writer than a humorist who wound up writing about science. Even her book's title is something of a giveaway: it's unscientific, flippant and suggestive.
The book opens with a convention of plastic surgeons who will all be experimenting with new techniques on severed human heads. Roach asks a woman who's setting up the tables how she copes with her job. The woman says, "What I do is, I think of them as wax." Later, a bossy woman named Yvonne takes notice of Roach and looks like she's going to throw her out until a phone call establishes her credentials:
No one pays attention to me, except for a small, dark-haired woman, who stands off to the side, staring at me. She doesn't look as if she wants to be my friend. I decide to think of her as wax.... My nemesis is none other than the cadaver beheader. As it turns out, she is also the lab manager, the person responsible when things go wrong, such as writers fainting and/or getting sick to their stomach and then going home and writing books that refer to anatomy lab managers as beheaders.... She has come over to outline her misgivings.... My end of the conversation takes place entirely in my head and consists of a single repeated line. You cut off heads. You cut off heads. You cut off heads. (21-22)
The book teems with scenes like this. Roach is, by any reasonable estimation, hilarious. She'd probably say she was "gut-bustingly funny," because that turn of phrase would point up some current sight-gag that played off something visceral — literally. The fact remains (groooaaan) that you could read the book purely for the comedy, determined to learn nothing of value, and still walk away completely satisfied.
Roach takes readers through what happens to human cadavers in medical school in passages that seem, here, deliberately leavened with humor to minimize the gruesomeness of the topic and to prepare readers for much more to come. As it turns out, medical school cadavers are on their way out. They're expensive; using them is very time-consuming. Schools increasingly rely on alternative methods, such as segmented cadavers (similar to the heads for the plastic surgeons) and three-dimensional computer modeling.
Our modern plenitude of corpses presents something of an anomaly, so Roach takes us back through history to explain just how precious the dead were. We meet medieval anatomists at the University of Bologna, grave-robbers of the English Enlightenment — even William Burke, inventor of "Burking" (smothering while compressing the torso), an Irish innkeeper who murdered his guests to sell to a Scottish anatomist happy to look the other way for a fresh cadaver.
From there, she ventures to the Body Farm, a project by the University of Tennessee to examine how human bodies decay, in terms of speed, changes in the body and the conditions of their surroundings. Fans of shows on Court TV and the Discovery Channel about new breakthroughs in criminal investigations and forensics probably already know the name but are unfamiliar with just how, uh, gross the anatomy there is.
This last focus, the cadaver's contributions to testing outside the medical lab, forms the lion's share of Roach's book. We're already familiar with the amazing and wonderful things our bodies can do in medicine, beginning with organ donation and ending with training the next wave of physicians and surgeons, but most of us are completely ignorant of how much cadavers have enriched our lives outside the hospital.
Roach devotes separate chapters to how cadavers vastly improved automotive safety, to how their disposition in airline crash simulations has contributed to our knowledge of how planes fail and finally to cadaver usage in military testing. The last seems like a wryly grim joke itself — you don't need a whole dead human body to simulate what will happen to one under a cluster bomb — but it's a surprisingly earnest section of the book. You can substitute a side of beef for people in testing how well a bomb tears things apart, but you need a human foot and ankle to test how well new boots or body armors might protect our soldiers from mines or anti-personnel devices (like cluster bombs).
It's at this point that the focus in the book gets hazy. Roach investigates supposed instances of cannibalism, medical attempts to establish the existence of the soul, head transplants and corpse reanimation. While some of the quasi-metaphysical stuff is fascinating (the use of cadavers to replicate Jesus' time on the cross should entertain both skeptics and believers), it lacks the purposeful coherence of her writing about automotive safety tests. Roach's humor works best either as a fan of science finding a lighthearted way to talk about it or a skeptic willing to poke fun at extremes. When she gets into the realms of non-science or anti-science, there isn't as much to work with, because everything is equally credible or incredible. For the most part, she can only watch.
STIFF ends with Roach looking at alternate forms of burial (e.g. green burial, giving back to the environment) and scientific preservation, like "plastination," which is a form of polymerizing the human body akin to the famous "BodyWorlds" and "Exhibit Human: The Wonders Within" exhibits that have toured Europe and North America. Also, after presenting so many alternatives to burial, she finally discloses what she would like to do with her own body. Mind you, it's not necessarily what will be done with her body.
Roach may surprise those who read The American Way of Death by siding with funeral home directors: she thinks that death's too distressing, for the survivors, for those who died to foist on them some onerous, complex or hideous final request. It's the family's well-being that's of the most importance, and they should arrange for whatever disposition best helps them grieve. Go ahead and make some last request, but don't insist. After all, you're not the one who has to live with it.