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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers - Mary Roach

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2 Reviews

Genre: Science / Nature / Author: Mary Roach / Edition: New Ed / Paperback / 304 Pages / Book is published 2004-07-01 by Penguin Books Ltd

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    2 Reviews
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      04.07.2012 12:50
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      For those with a taste for the macabre

      In this book, Mary Roach, an author and journalist, investigates what happens to dead bodies.

      There are more possibilities than you might think. The first chapter deals with bodies willed to medical research, or at least some of the heads, where cosmetic surgeons get the opportunity to practise procedures.

      The second deals with bodies that weren't willed to medical research, but rather were stolen for medical research, hence the title 'crimes of anatomy'. Here, Roach explores the history of human dissection. Obviously Burke & Hare make an appearance, but other interesting stories are discussed. The present realities, where she is reassured by the attempt by medical schools to foster respectful attitudes in their students through memorial services for the deceased. She also touches on the future, where 3D modelling is taking over.

      The third chapter is about the natural decomposition of bodies, where she visits a research facility, tracking what happens to bodies in various situations, in order to help identify time-lines for police investigations and the like.

      The fourth, 'Dead Man Driving', explores the use of bodies in car crash test scenarios.

      The fifth explains how the human wreckage from air crashes can help understand what happened 'Beyond the Black Box'.

      The sixth deals with historical incidences of the army using cadavers to test weapons and present day alternatives. It also discusses stopping power and how bullets could be designed to stop an aggressor rather than necessarily kill or maim - but aren't... It's fascinating to learn that most humans (and dogs) tend to drop instantly when hit by a bullet, even a non-lethal shot, but deer and other animals will keep going until the blood loss brings them down. Tribesmen (who haven't watched so much telly) are more likely to keep coming, too.

      Chapter 7 is about past experiments on bodies to help resolve the question of the authenticity of the Turin Shroud. Transplants, 'brain death' and a past of finding it hard to determine death inform chapter 8.

      In nine, Roach explores decapitation, the guillotine and experiments to transplant heads (on animals). Cannibalism for honour or medicinal reasons is the main theme of the tenth chapter.

      The eleventh chapter deals with the prospect of composting human remains as a greener alternative to burial/cremation. The final chapter is where Roach rounds up and gives her verdict on what she would have done with her own body when her time comes.


      *** My View ***

      'Stiff' was quite a fun read. I really liked the other Mary Roach I'd read, 'Six Feet Over', so was very much looking forward to this book when I found it at a charity shop.

      It's a fascinating if macabre look at what we do with corpses.

      The main criticism I have is that Roach's humour was a bit more hit-and-miss in this book than I found it to be in 'Six Feet Over'. It's hard to balance a light-hearted tone with this kind of subject matter, and there are quite a few misfires. Trying to maintain respect while pointing out the adult nappy or roasting tin doesn't quite work...

      Her shock threshold (or expectation of her readers' shock threshold) was a good bit lower than mine is. I imagine a lot of her readers' thresholds might also be higher than she assumes, given they'd presumably be aware of the subject matter when they chose to read the book. Some of her attitudes seemed quite parochial, and I couldn't decide whether that was her catering to her audience, as she thought, or her real attitude. Her narrative voice was sometimes a bit irritating.

      Overall, I enjoyed it. It was mildly amusing where her humour worked, grisly at times and very interesting. There's lot more variety to a cadaver's after-life than I'd previously been aware of.

      Not one for everyone by any means. If you're of the morbid disposition this might suit, it's available on Amazon from between £3 and £7 new.

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      • More +
        23.04.2008 10:40
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        Steer clear

        What happens after death? Whatever your religious views (or lack of them) about life after death, the path of our physical remains seems to be pretty set in stone; a service of some sort and then committal to the ground/crematorium. But what happens to buried bodies and to those who choose donate their bodies to medical science? Mary Roach conducted her own investigations and has compiled twelve short articles dealing with 'life after rigor mortis', from body farms to plastic surgery, through the history of dissection and cadaver experimentation (including animals).

        The book certainly has a wide remit and with each chapter being only around 20-30 pages long that's a lot to squeeze in (and a lot to be left out). The first few chapters were very good, well balanced, focused and enjoyable to read but it seemed that Roach struggled to come up with 12 lines of enquiry and the other chapters are bitty, full of extraneous material and didn't hold my interest so successfully. I was fascinated by her visit to a body farm, to a plastic surgery masterclass and the work on plane/car crashes but the final chapter on future methods of body disposal didn't whet my interest, not least because the book was published in 2003 and things have moved on in the last five years. The articles inbetween had so many little tangential stories included that it appears Roach was desperate to include all of the 'icky' or 'crazy' stories she came across in her research, even if they didn't relate to the putative title of her article. Several articles once trimmed of these stories would be easily incorporated into other chapters, whilst ones that could have done with more detail or depth were sadly lacking. Even more stories were included as footnotes and the overall result was rather jerky and without a distinct flow. It is worth remembering at this point that Roach is a journalist with a non-medical background, so we aren't getting an author who can give us an in-depth or proper behind the scenes investigation, these are merely light articles akin to those that appear in weighty Sunday supplements.

        This is certainly not a book for the weak of stomach; my vocabulary has now expanded to include 'skin slippage' and 'frothy purge' and if you don't want to know what happens to your body when you are buried (and why I will be cremated or deep frozen or anything else in preference to inhumation now) don't read this book. Some people may have problems with the lighthearted tone that Roach has chosen, which may appear disrespectful or mocking and is absent only in the chapter on air crashes. Roach makes a conspicuous effort to defend both her approach and her motives in the introduction, but I put the book down having felt somewhat sullied by the lack of respect shown towards the human remains she discusses so cavalierly. However I also came away with a greater understanding of the necessity and importance of the tests carried out on cadavers (thanks more to the people she interviews rather than Roach herself), although I still wont be dedicating my body to medical science; not only because it is extremely complicated to do but also because I could end up as a head in a tray having a facelift or a nosejob, or having parts of my fat and cartilage involved in 'vanity' cosmetic procedures.

        I would be happy to have my organs donated however and this is another interesting area of the book; discussing the medical definition of death. The heart needs to be kept beating in order to make donated organs viable even though the brain is dead, something that has caused immense amounts of legal and medical debate and controversy. Roach discusses some of the cases that have led to the current accepted standards, but also our taboos and attitudes to death and dying that characterise us as a species or culture. Why do we attach so much meaning to the human corpse, why do we surround death with rituals and taboos that even between different cultures can appear completely bizarre; how is our burning or burying any different from being lovingly consumed by relatives or being eaten by vultures, or more importantly why do we have such strong reactions to these alternative methods of dealing with death? Roach has done the preliminary approach to these ideas and has certainly given me a great deal to think about, but obviously stops short of any sort of serious or lengthy discussion of the issues.

        I was determined to finish the book but I ended up almost forcing myself through the final few chapters, which disappointed me as this sort of book is usually right up my street. I learned a lot (nothing I can mention at dinner parties though), challenged my own beliefs and had my stomach turned but only in the most shallow and least impressive ways. I found the tone inappropriate in places, as if Roach was determined to apply the Howard Stern approach to writing about death; shock, shock, controversy and devil take those who are shocked at an offhand description of the sound maggots make when eating, or the mental image of a cadaver in a sock mask and adult nappy being strapped into a car. I didn't realise how strongly this came across until I began writing this review and debating my reactions to the book which were originally felt as a vague negativity and not explored further. On the other hand how many people would be able to read a similar book without the humour/offhandedness and how many copies of the book would then be sold? Cynical? Me? Never. By the time I had finished the book I was thoroughly irritated with the author and much more inclined to trust my instincts when confronted with a popular book with rave reviews on an 'edgy' subject. For a similarly popular book on a similarly edgy subject may I recommend 'Mutants' by Armand Marie Leroi , he actually manages to pull it off.

        I will leave you with a final thought: Maggots make a noise like coco pops apparently


        ISBN: 0141007451
        Price: £8.99 for the paperback, although Amazon.co.uk has it for £6.74.

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      • Product Details

        What happens to your body after you have died? Fertilizer? Crash Test Dummy? Human Dumpling? Ballistics Practise? Life after death is not as simple as it looks. Mary Roach's Stiff lifts the lid off what happens to our bodies once we have died. Bold, original and with a delightful eye for detail, Roach tells us everything we wanted to know about this new frontier in medical science. Interweaving present-day explorations with a history of past attempts to study what it means to be human Stiff is a deliciously dark investigations for readers of popular science as well as fans of the macabre