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Member Name: Mephit
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers - Mary Roach
Date: 04/07/12, updated on 05/07/12 (53 review reads)
Disadvantages: hit-and-miss humour
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.
Summary: For those with a taste for the macabre
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