Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

A book about corpses should not be laugh-out-loud amusing, but Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is seriously funny.  Like Janet Evanovich's Plum books, it's not something you want to read on public transit.  In fact, I can see Grandma Mazur discussing it over pineapple upsidedown cake while Steph's mother reaches for a tumbler of whiskey.  I would love to have lunch with author Mary Roach, but perhaps not after she's visited the Body Farm.

Stiff covers serious topics - the history of anatomy, how cadavers are used to create safer cars, organ donation, burial - but Roach has a dry sense of humor and the ability to walk the like between irreverence and respect.  The professionals she profiles seem to do the same thing.  They may use humor to deal with their sometimes gory work but never forget that the bodies upon which they are working were recently living people and deserve a degree of dignity.  Gross anatomy students hold a memorial service for their cadavers at the end of the semester and engineers testing car safety equipment mask a cadaver's face in a white sock as if to protect his privacy.  Roach's wry impressions, often of how she imagines her serious but ghoulish questions sound, leaven what could be a morbid topic.

Throughout the book, Roach expresses her respect and gratitude for those who donate their bodies.  Every time someone walks away from a car accident or a medical examiner determines how long a murder victim has been hidden, it's because someone experimented on cadavers.  Hundreds of thousands of people have enjoyed extra decades of life because someone was selfless enough to allow surgeons to remove their organs after their often sudden and violent death.  Roach also shows respect for the survivors, pointing out that as noble as donating one's body to science can be, it's unfair to force one's survivors to do something with which they are not comfortable or which would be an undue hardship.  Keeping that in mind, she implies that while she's more than willing to have her cadaver used in an anatomy class or to develop safety equipment, if her squeamish husband outlives her, she will only donate organs, not her entire body.

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