Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Bodies. They pulse and squish, intake and excrete. They do the heavy lifting and the fine-tuning. Bodies. You can’t… well, you can’t live without them. In Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, you can take a look into the (hopefully) distant future to when your body becomes an inanimate object and someone else’s property.

Unfortunately, Roach does not have enough confidence in her subject matter. Instead of allowing very interesting facts to speak for themselves, she crowbars her own feelings, history, and any extraneous material she comes across (no matter how incidental) into paragraphs or footnotes. I get the feeling that is she were enlisted to do a eulogy, she would fill is with puns, asides, and random observations rather than throwing her all into honoring the life of the deceased. I found her style to be so distracting that I was unable to concentrate on the excitement that the inside scoop on corpses should provide.

The saving grace of Stiff is that dead bodies are just so damn interesting. Even for a notably squeamish person, I can’t pretend that finding out what’s going to happen when I die isn’t fascinating. Roach lays out the whole “donating bodies to science” business clearly, outlining everything from full-body donations to anatomy classes to getting a post-mortem facelift by plastic surgeon trainees. And the body farms. You’re just going to have to read about the body farms.

I’ve always been an organ donor, but Stiff has made me wonder if I can do more after death. While I don’t like the idea of moldering out in an open field, I can certainly consider how I want my remains taken care of in the event of a brain death. Why not save my family the hassle and just have a piece of paper that enables doctors to pull the plug and hustle me down to the OR, ready for harvest for people who really need a piece of me? It’s a final good deed that can echo through the generations.

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