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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

By Pinky McLadybits | Books | March 22, 2010 |

By Pinky McLadybits | Books | March 22, 2010 |

My aunt’s husband passed away in November of last year due to complications of the H1N1 flu. His remains were donated to science. I hadn’t really given much thought to what might happen to his body once it was donated. I briefly imagined that he would be shown to students or something and his organs examined to show the correlation of his health prior to the contraction of the flu and his death. Of course, that’s closer to what an autopsy would do, but I didn’t think about that. Though I have a degree in criminal justice with an emphasis on crime-scene investigations, I don’t like to think about what happens when we die. I’m better with looking at the components than the whole picture. So it wasn’t until I read Stiff that I was confronted with some reality about what happens when we die.

Roach begins by taking us with her to observe a group of plastic surgeons practicing on decapitated human heads in disposable roasting pans. Many people, like my husband, might quickly become disgusted and point out that plastic surgery isn’t generally something that people need to have done, so why use human cadaver heads for them to practice on? Roach and the surgeons counter that the surgery still needs to be safe for those who choose to have it and, after all, the dead don’t know what their heads are doing at this point.

Another use of bodies willed to science is that of crash-test dummy. The bodies are used to test how many pounds of pressure the human body can withstand before severe injury or death occurs (the death in question is, of course, not of the cadaver being tested). The cadavers do not drive any cars, but they are subjected to machines that exert pressure and then the damage, or lack of damage, is noted to allow car makers to create safer vehicles for the living.

Roach also explores the use of cadavers for the testing of bullet-proof vests, medical student dissections, testing the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, and organ donation. In between these sections are investigations of the illicit use of cadavers in the early years of organized medicine and schools, medicinal ingestion in ancient China and other countries, and the composting of remains as an alternative to cremation. The result is at times horrifying, at times highly entertaining and interesting, and then right back to horrifying. Not only are some of the illicit and legitimate uses of cadavers a bit too much information but the swapping of live animals for dead humans is some of the worst stuff in the book. Anyone who has read Roach’s other works will understand the wit and humor that she tends to bring to her writing as well as her unflinching presentation of information less than palatable to most people. As such, it took me quite a long time to make my way through this book.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Pinky McLadybits’ reviews, check out Pinky McLadybits Has A Blog

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.