Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
If you’re anything like me, you watch those formulaic detective shows. You know, the ones where everything is packaged in a neat bow at the end – usually with the help of a medical examiner who knows the exact time and date the victim was murdered. And if you’re any more like me (which, creeeepy!), you’ve wondered at the accuracy of that time and date. I mean, is it even possible to know stuff like that?
Apparently, it is.
In one of the disturbingly engaging chapters in Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, she describes a section of the University of Tennessee’s campus devoted to the study of decomposing bodies in various states of…disposal? Eek, that sounds a little indelicate. But get this: some are splayed naked under trees while others are dressed to the nines but stuffed in a car’s trunk. Still others are in shallow graves or dumped in marshy lake water. All of this is done under the scientific eyes of Professors and soon-to-be medical examiners to determine the rate at which the human body decays in various circumstances. E. GADS. Let me warn you right now: if you are at all queasy about this subject matter, for the love of all that is good and holy, do not do an image search of the University of Tennessee body farm. What is seen cannot be unseen.
Could I have lived without learning about the history of how the medical community acquired human cadavers for scientific study, the many (many, many, many, many, many….) uses of bodies donated to science, the gradual uptake of embalming, the different burial/disposal options available for bodies, scientific advances in head transplants, and whether or not a guillotined head is still aware 2-4 seconds after being detached from the body? Tots, my friends. But would I want to? Hells, no!
There were times I had to put the book down and focus on the less gruesome side of life. There were other times that I thought the book focused on topics that weren’t of real interest. I mean, for a person who is pretty sure of what should be done to her body post-mortem, the chapter devoted to advances in ecologically friendly burial techniques pioneered in Sweden wasn’t the most engaging. But, I can/do recognize the importance for others who are undecided on the matter to be educated about their options…no matter how indelicate they may come off.
In the end, I would give this book a 4.5 out of 5 coffees. I definitely stayed up reading this late into the night. Whether that proved to be a good decision, I cannot say objectively. Dreaming about dead bodies changes a person.