READ: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

by westcorkosteology

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Mary Roach

Penguin Books, 2004, 9780141007458.

‘Stiff ‘ was recommended by a friend when I was taking my death-centric MAHO.  We talked about death all the time, at every break, and in the pub.  Colleagues and family members would look on in silence while we couldn’t get enough of death.  We could take or leave the cadavers however.

I think we all looked forward to the anatomy module, I certainly did, but we were not prepared for the smell first thing on a Monday morning.  It would mean that for the next five weeks or so, no-one would consider going out on a Sunday night, and most would not eat breakfast until after the module.  On the first day in the lab, we donned the lab coats and the latex gloves.  We were warned that we should dress appropriately; sandals would neither be welcome nor advisable.  We were then asked to show respect to the cadavers, as the remains had been donated in the interests of education and science.  Should we wish to donate, forms were available.

On that first morning, the remains were covered while the head technician welcomed us.  This was probably to keep our attention focused on him, while he went through the rules.  Still, hands and feet poked out at us from beneath the sheets.   For our module, which was actually for first year anatomy students, the cadavers had already been sectioned.  We were therefore confronted only by individual limbs, headed (?) trunks or body parts.  On occasion, a cadaver would be sectioned on the sagittal plane.  I don’t remember seeing a complete cadaver.  We might study the hand and arm one week in lectures and see them the following week in the lab.  So while the selection of remains was mostly to do with the curriculum, I wonder was there also a reason we never saw a full body.  I wonder if it is easier for people to reckon with a limb rather than an entire body.  (Although, most wouldn’t go as far as touch a one; I became known as ‘the butcher’, because it didn’t bother me too much to turn over the cadaverous limbs.)  Some osteologists have no issue handling bones, but dislike working with teeth because it reminds them too much of the person.   Perhaps handling human remains involves some re-working of the ideas of  life, death and the body you may have held for some time.  I have wondered if it is more difficult for those with religious beliefs to reconcile their work with their ideology.

Apart from an enhanced knowledge of anatomy, courtesy of these cadavers, I came away with an interest in donation.  I hate waste and have been trying to think of an ecological way of disposing of my remains when I no longer need them.  I certainly don’t want to have tree felled so that I can be repackaged within it and a number of chemicals for a few hours of show that no-one would like to remember.  I see some romance in the idea of cremation and if that’s what family members want, then send me here, please.  Ideally whatever serviceable organs would be removed, and then the remains would be carted off to the nearest university.  Perhaps a fellow osteologist would like them for a reference collection, although they will have the excuse the condition of my teeth.

While I will endeavour to determine the outcome, it will of course be the decision of those I leave behind.  If I do write a will, they’re all getting copies of ‘Stiff’.  It may be a tasteless bequest to the recently bereaved, but perhaps they’ll dislike me enough at that stage not to care or to comply, and sign away my carcass to science.

Should you be recently bereaved, ‘Stiff’ should probably not be on your reading list.  Also if you still believe in Santa, Easter bunnies and the ability of the Irish state to self-govern, you’re too young for this one – hold on to that precious innocence while it lasts.  Otherwise, if you’re not too squeamish, this is a great antidote to a bad mood.  There are even pictures!  Not gory pictures.  But one for every imaginatively titled chapter, such as ‘A Head is a Terrible Thing to Waste’ and ‘How to Know if You’re Dead’.

Roach writes the book from the viewpoint of the uninitiated, and the humour helps to soften the blow for the squeamish.  It will not appeal to everyone.  I found it really funny and uplifting.  My mother did not*.   The Sunday Times quote on the cover states: “Delightful.  It will leave you feeling more cheerful about life, and calmer about life’s inevitable destination.”

To give you a feel for the book, here is a clip from my favourite chapter ‘Life After Death’, which details the work of Arpad Vass, and the University of Tennessee body farm:

This morning, Arpad and I are riding in the back of a van being driven by the lovable and agreeable Ron Walli, one of ONRL’s media relations guys.  Ron pulls into a row of parking spaces at the far end of the UT Medical Centre lot, labeled G section.  On hot summer days, you can always find a parking space in G section, and not just because it’s a longer walk to the hospital.  G section is bordered by a tall wooden fence topped with concertina wire, and on the other sides of the fence are the bodies.  Arpad steps down from the van.  “Smell’s not that bad today,” he says.  His “not that bad” has that hollow, over-upbeat tone one hears when spouses back over flowerbeds or home coloring goes awry.

I won’t say anything else, in case I spoil it.  If you read it, or have read it, let me know what you think!

* Following this book, I tried her on ‘The Loved One’ by Evelyn Waugh.  More death, and she is probably more worried about my interests but she enjoyed that one.