Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.|
W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.
303 pages, $23.95 (hardback).
The human corpse leaves to the living a haunted estate. At first we see only the view it offers of ourselves, inert and ruined. Look beyond this, however, and you find our uniquely human prospects for teaching and learning from each other don't end where we end. What the remains of the living still have to offer the living is the subject under investigation in Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.
Roach has written for publications as clashy as Vogue, Reader's Digest, and Discover. She's covered the map, stylistically, and in this book she lets her nomadic voice speak in all its chattering tongues. The early chapters showcase her powers of historical research and her magpie-eye for shiny bits of trivia. Examples: Herophilus, the "Father of Anatomy," performed vivisections (live dissections) on as many as 600 poor souls. The "Father of Embalming," Thomas Holmes, insisted on the cremation of his own remains. Necrophilia was not a crime in the U.S. until 1965. The first dentures were made with actual human teeth. Before preserving the deceased, one must first suture the anus . . . The book is full of grim facts and grim ironies, and Roach knows just how to arouse our interest by massaging our disgust. After a few chapters of two-parts-academic, one-part-carny prose, Roach trades it in for a cheeky pop-journalism tarted up with Google searches and eye-rolling one-liners in the footnotes. The tenth chapter—about a trip to China prompted by the rumored use of human remains as elixirs—is travel writing gone tabloid. It's Condé Nast sharing a tent with National Enquirer on a "Mondo Bizarro" safari.
Not everyone will share my objections to the author's shiftless prose. After all, Roach doesn't ask to be taken seriously in her book on that most serious of subjects. Her tour begins with the observation that, "Being dead is . . . the silliest situation you'll find yourself in." To prove the point, our guide summons up her sense of silly over the next 300 pages. Right off, she informs us that no distinctions are made with donated tissue. Our willed remains might be used to save the life of a burn victim, but they might also be used to "aggrandize" a man's penis . . . we'll never know! Roach devotes an entire paragraph of chapter three to discussing whether or not dead people fart (she rules affirmatively). We're even treated to her comparison of embalming to frat parties (out with the blood, in with the alcohol), and to the fine distinction she draws between the cruelties of seventeenth-century criminal justice and the cruelties of our own: "must have been a whole different plate of tamales back then." Sometimes, Roach comes at you with the back slaps and chucking elbows of an annoying uncle who can't stop laughing at his own jokes. I generally prefer my uncles that way, but this is a book about death. It's obvious the author is going out of her way to lighten up this subject, but for the benefit of whom—the audience or herself? Was she worried that her readers would pull back from horror without harr-harr's, or was she the one pulling back just a bit?
To the book's credit, each of its chapters makes for an engaging read in its own way. Only slapped together do they stir up such choppy water that you wish the author had stayed ashore in magazine land. One expects an evenness of style and tone between the boards of a book that Roach does not deliver here. Take them at separate sittings, though, and the chapters stand out on their own. For me, the book's biggest "a-ha" moment came during a chapter on the use of corpses in tests of automobile safety. Crash test dummies alone are not enough to generate the data needed by car manufacturers on the effects automobile accidents have on our human bodies. "A dummy can tell you how much force a crash is unleashing on various dummy parts, but without knowing how much of a blow a real body part can take, the information is useless." Therefore, for every automaton hurled against a wall inside a speeding test car, a post-mortem volunteer army of bodies and body parts must first be pummeled, hammered, crushed, and torn to establish the limits of the organism.
Another of Stiff's best chapters is the one devoted to the University of Tennessee's Oak Ridge Laboratory. Performing research that most people would consider ghastly, the lab's residents scrutinize the chemical and biological processes of decomposition for the forensic clues they leave behind. Somewhere on the UT campus lies a field strewn with corpses: some dressed, some bared to the elements, each in its own unique and highly scrutinized stage of rot. This chapter rates high on the gross-out scale, but better than anywhere else, the author achieves in it an unsentimental and unsensational tone that is graceful and bracing. Here she informs us that, in decay, the digestive organs liquefact first, "for they are home to the greatest numbers of bacteria . . . The brain is another early departure organ . . . because brains are soft and easy to eat . . . The brain liquefies very quickly. It just pours out the ears and bubbles out the mouth." Gross, yes, but such is nature's design for us . . . to wind up some place in the sun, throwing up our brains and soiling the soil. No wonder we bury our dead (and sometimes undertake more drastic measures).
"Rotting," with all its, "leakage and wickage and discharge, pus and snot and slime and gleet . . . is interesting," Roach waxes. "We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget." Roach's book is a plea offered the living not to forget. Stiff is a reminder that there are "other ways to spend your time [when you're dead] . . . Get involved with science. Become an art exhibit. Become a part of a tree. Some options for you to think about . . ." Engrossing, and gross, full of zingers and Zen—the book demonstrates just how many ways the existence, indeed, the usefulness, of the human body survives its occupant.
To those of us who never amount to much in life, the book extends hope; maybe the most interesting things we ever do await us.