5 | Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

A strange and somewhat inappropriate follow up to the book I finished prior to this one (Being Mortal by Atul Gawande), Stiff was almost a welcome read as it discussed more of the post-suffering, post-death, post-ritual, aspect of the body. Roach writes at the very beginning of the book that “[the book] is not about death as in dying” which is “sad and profound.” Instead, “it is about the already dead, the anonymous, behind-the-scenes dead.” I found myself actually laughing at certain parts, as Roach deliberately injects overt sarcasm and puns, but I also found myself unable to eat while reading, a debacle I routinely found myself in as I tend to eat and read at the same time. No joke, while reading a chapter titled “Eat Me: Medical cannibalism and the case of the human dumplings,” I realized I was actually eating… Chinese dumplings. I was repulsed and put the book down.

Clearly, as evidenced by my failure to be able to eat and read at the same time, I am still disturbed and highly uncomfortable by discussion of the dead body. What’s interesting is that Roach is fully aware of the fact many readers would feel this way. She writes: “The problem with cadavers is that they look so much like people. It’s the reason most of us prefer a pork chop to a slice of whole suckling pig. Dissection and surgical instruction, like meat-eating, require a carefully maintained set of illusions and denial.” This is a known fact; that’s why radical animal rights organizations broadcast footage from inside slaughterhouses, showing the animals being maimed and electrocuted, all while screaming in fear and pain. If people associated their hot dog or chicken nugget with a live animal, we’d probably eat less meat. But the companies that profit off of meat are doing a fabulous job at disassociating these two things and manicuring the illusion that we are simply consuming a delectable 23 grams of protein. As it turns out, people who deal with cadavers including those who prepare the parts for laboratories, medical students, ballistics experts, surgeons and morticians, pretty much everyone really, relies on the disassociation between life and body.

Each chapter is about different uses or histories behind cadavers. From 18th and 19th century anatomists trying to authenticate the Shroud of Turin by determining how Jesus’ bodily fluid would flow from the wounds of his crucifixion, to the modern day automobile industry uses cadavers to conduct crash-tests and engineer better safety technology, I was really surprised at just how many fields benefit from the use of cadavers. There really is no replacement; Australia has banned the use of human cadavers for a number of research uses, and instead pioneered an “artificial” body using plastics and gelatins to simulate bone and muscle (of course, it’s much more complicated). Only problem is the models aren’t reusable, and are $5000, whereas all the costs associated with a cadaver including shipping, preservation, cremation, etc., are under $500. Human cadavers are used to help scientists understand how bodies decompose under certain conditions which lead to better forensic data and ultimately help solve crimes. They were used by the military to develop different weapons and bullets to both maximize and minimize damage to vital organs. They also help train cadaver dogs to find human remains of missing people. Nothing can truly simulate a human.

“… no matter what you choose to do with your body when you die, it won’t, ultimately, be very appealing. If you are inclined to donate yourself to science, you should not let images of dissection or dismemberment put you off. They are no more or less gruesome… than ordinary decay or the sewing shut of your jaws via your nostrils for a funeral viewing.”

Roach’s book affirmed what I already knew about donating one’s body. When I was 15 and filling out paperwork to apply for my driver’s license, I first encountered the question if I’d be willing to be a organ donor, God forbid I get into a fatal car accident. Within seconds I unequivocally said to myself, absolutely. Why would I waste my perfectly functional organs and let them just decompose in the ground? As it turns out, in my state, one must actually opt-in to become an organ donor. Years later when my Singaporean friend received a pamphlet in the mail about renewing her driver’s license, I discovered that organ donation was an opt-out process, one that you had to file paperwork and jump through other low-hanging but nonetheless inconvenient bureaucratic hoops to change your status. This idea seemed radical to me. According to the American Transplant Foundation, on average 22 people die everyday from the lack of available transplants they need to live. A quick Google search of “how many people die everyday” revealed over 150,000+ die each day. I’m no mathematician but I have to say this is “achingly sad” as Roach puts it (though she uses these words to describe the same statistic in 2003).

It seems to be that a significant number of people are confused by organ donation or believe it to be sacrilege. I understand many people have deep religious or cultural beliefs about the body, but in an era of increasing secularism, it seems that our beliefs about death and what to do about it should evolve too. Dignity is paramount, yet wriggling little beetle larvae in your orifices as you decompose, or sitting in an urn on your children’s fireplace mantle doesn’t sound very sexy to me. Actually, what seems worse to me is polluting the environment, either by being incinerated (including dental fillings, knee replacements, titanium hips, whatever it might be) and contributing to the airborne mercury pollution, or having my ashes spread all over a body a water to literally clog it up. I’d like an ecological funeral, please, as mentioned last post. First, donate my viable organs to people in need, then if you don’t mind, grow a tree from what’s left.