Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
By Mary Roach
W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (May 2004)
After my previous read on the beginning of life, this one is about the end of it. Mary Roach has collected data, historical facts and curious anecdotes on the fates of human corpses. Despite the unappetizing topic, it is an entertaining read.
Roach discusses decay, burial and its alternatives, giving one's body to science for anatomical studies (where one might serve as a practice for face lifting), organ donation and brain death, plastination, preservation, embalming or becoming a post-mortem crash-test dummy. You, or at least parts of you, can also end up being shot at to study the stopping power of bullets. She further covers the examination of victims of fatal accidents, for example plane crashes, to obtain information about the accident's cause, cannibalism, and experiments that were done to determine whether the shroud of Turin is authentic.
She evidently did a lot of reading and in many cases went to visit the places where experiments were made and talked to the scientists. Roach also does not hold back with her opinion, neither on organ donation nor on the credibility of some scientists or their publications. Thomas Edison for example comes off as “a loopy individual” and she remarks about one author “[He] is not a doctor, or not, at least, one of the medical variety. He is a doctor of the variety that gets a Ph.D. and attaches it to his name on self-help book covers. I found his testimonials iffy as evidence...” One might or might not agree with her opinions, but I found it very refreshing that she speaks her mind and does not leave the reader with a white-washed who-said-what, an unfortunately wide-spread habit among science writers that is sold as balanced reporting but eventually is mostly useless reporting. She also doesn't swallow every story she's read but goes to try verify it herself, as for example in a case of cannibalism reported from China that turns out to be made up. While the report on her travel to China is somewhat pointless in that it doesn't contribute to the theme of the book, it speaks for Roache's fact checking.
The book is full with absurdities from the history of science, such as techniques used in the 18th and 19th century to verify death, among them putting insects into the corpse's ear or rhythmic tongue-pulling for three hours following the suspected death. The reader also learns that the average human stomach bursts when stretched over a volume of approximately 4 liters, and that the Urban Institute in 1991 calculated the value of one human life at US $ 2.7 million. (One is left to wonder whether that's the global average or the value of US citizens.) On some topics I found the coverage thin and would have expected more details, for example on the history of burial or the progress in organ transplantation. I was also surprised that the fate of Einstein's brain didn't even make it into a footnote.
I guess there's only two ways to approach the topic of decaying human remains, either with gravity and philosophy or with humor. Mary Roach does it with humor and she does well, though her jokes become quite foreseeable after a few chapters. A little disturbing I found her tendency to self-degradation and portraying herself as an annoying person who her interview partners must think badly about, reflected in sentences like “[He] throws me a look.... [The look] says I'm a petit bouchon fécal [French, roughly: little piece of shit]” or “She considers this fact. I am feeling more like last week's coleslaw than usual.” It's probably supposed to be funny-ha-ha, but it makes me wonder about the author's self-image.
Taken together, the book is smoothly written, entertaining and covers the topic well. If this was an amazon review, I'd give five stars for flawlessness. Having finished “Stiff” I have to say though that after all the topic isn't one I'm particularly interested in. The book has however provided me with plenty of useless knowledge that is certain to make me a memorable guest when offered at the next dinner party.