I walked into the room the whole time never taking my eyes off the cadaver on the table. I was not afraid nor sickened. I was fascinated. It was the corpse of an old man and it had been eviscerated. A cut opened up it’s chest exposing the organs that were still attached. Another cut had spilt it’s head down to the base of the neck. It looked like old leather, it simply didn’t look real. The smell was part chemical and part death, sweet, thick and industrial. The class gathered around the table, some far away, some close, while the professor began to point out major anatomical parts that had been covered in class. I had not been expecting a class that would allow me to view a cadaver lab, much less be apart of one. However, Cleveland Chiropractic College insisted that you had to have one to graduate. This was not that class, this was a viewing of what we would be doing and giving us an opportunity to see the real thing, not just pictures in a book.
Years later I would be engaged in a Facebook conversation in which everyone was recommending books. Two people, whose opinions I value as intelligent and well read, suggested an author named Mary Roach. I had never heard of her before and asked for more information. A few days later at work one of those people handed me a Mary Roach book called Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. I first thought of my experience back at Cleveland. I, like Mary Roach, had wondered where this man came from. Who was he in life? What had he been like? I had been fascinated, not by a torn up corpse, but by the transformation from living, breathing, thinking, life-form to yellow old leather on a metal table. I was promised that Mrs.Roach’s book would not only be enlightening, but entertaining as well. I don’t recall ever reading a book on the dead that was more educational, touching and humorous as this one.
Mrs.Roach, a journalist and therefore a naturally curious person, was motivated by the same questions I had when standing in the cadaver lab. She went forth to find out the life of dead people and came up with twelve captivating chapters of examples of the jobs they perform. She starts her book with the experience of every medical student, practicing on the dead. She also covers the history of human dissection, which is pretty gory and very questionable. She visits the famous University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility, which studies human decay for the purposes of forensic science. They do this by leaving bodies out to rot on the ground in a semi-secluded area of the campus. She visits human crash test dummies who take a beating to make cars safer, and learns how the remains of passengers in a plane crash can help determine the cause of the crash when the black box can’t be recovered. She informs us how cadavers help the military develop more lethal weapons and takes a detour into the forensic science of the crucifixion. There is a chapter about how the medical community came to define death. After that one there are the two strangest chapters, one on historical attempts to reanimate and transplant severed human heads, and then one on medicinal cannibalism. That whole chapter was new information for me. She closes her book with a look at the new and environmental sound methods of disposing our dead.
I realized after that list of topics it might seem hard to picture yourself having a good time reading such morbid material. However, Mrs.Roach is a skilled story teller. She always weaves a sense of humor into these seemingly dark tales. As she walks through the grounds of the University of Tennessee observing all the different people decaying in the sun, she comments on an assistant to the professor she is with who has stopped eating certain foods as they remind him to much of his subjects. She paints an absurd but enjoyable picture of the human crash test dummy UM006, who refuses to sit up right in his seat to complete the test and has great comedic timing. Duck tape and canvas straps finally hold him in place.
Not all of the book is funny though, Mrs.Roach goes out of her way to show the feelings and opinions of those who work with the dead. The respect with which they carry out their duties and the importance that they feel society gains from what they do. Indeed, one of the main themes of this books is how the dead have played a major role in improving the over all quality of life for humanity. She praises those who would hand over their bodies to science for as she makes all to clear, their contribution has saved lives.
This was the other aspect of the book that I loved, the very human side of death. The dead don’t care, death is nothing for them, it is how we, the living handle it. Some of the more touching aspects of this book are the thoughts of those that deal with the after math, like Dennis Shanahan whose job it is to shift through the wreckage of plane crashes and through the damage done to the dead, determine what happened. He admits that he would rather deal with bits and pieces of people rather than whole bodies, as they are too much like the living. Mrs. Roach expresses this, ‘Gore you get used to. Shattered lives you don’t’.
I really had a hard time putting the book down. I would find myself entranced by the knowledge I was receiving at one point, laughing at a another and just plain cringing at others. There is plenty in this book to turn a stomach, so I recommend not eating and reading it at the same time, like I did. There were times I had to decide to stop eating, stop reading, or just suck it up.
One question you will have after reading Mrs. Roach’s book is what you will want done to your body when you die. What last job will you perform to better society? How will you want your body disposed of? Burn it, bury it, or chemically melt it down. Perhaps you will use it as compost to help grow a greener earth, leaving a tree as your memorial, as shown in the last chapter. In the end it is probably best to let your loved ones decide what should be done. The funeral will be for them anyway, you won’t care either way. You can still contribute to humanity before that however, and based off what I have learned from Mrs. Roaches book, I plan to do the same.