Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Cadavers are our superheroes. They brave fire without flinching, withstand falls from tall buildings and head-on car crashes into walls. You can fire a gun at them or run a speedboat over their legs, and it will not faze them. Their heads can be removed with no deleterious effect. They can be in six places at once. I take the Superhuman point of view. What a shame to waste these powers, to not use them for the betterment of humankind.
– May Roach (Author of Stiff)
Stiff is the title of a best-selling book written by Mary Roach. Released in 2003, the book is all about human cadavers — which is a polite way of saying “dead bodies.”
Sounds like a real treat, doesn’t it?
Indeed, aversion is to be expected. Why spend leisure time reading a decade-old book about dead bodies? Well, let’s reverse that question. Think of it this way — why wouldn’t you want to read a book about precisely what happens to your body — in great detail — once your life ends?
Too unbearable to ponder? Think again.
For the squeamish expecting a narrative that’s scientific or morbid, Stiff is surprisingly neither. Rather, it’s intriguing, original, and often very funny. Yes, I said it – funny.
Due to the persistent sensitivity and clever wit of the author Mary Roach, she takes one of the most disturbing subjects imaginable and not only makes this into a page-turner for all types of reading audiences (high school dropouts and doctors would likely find it equally interesting), but transforms the macabre into a remarkable revelation of the things which essentially make us human. In short, this isn’t a book about dying, at all. It’s about living and more precisely understanding the miraculous chamber called the human body which houses our existence for an average life span of about 75 years.
Before performing my own autopsy on the narrative, some personal background is warranted. Stiff was recommended to me by a colleague. I have no aptitude nor background in science and my knowledge of the medical field is limited to watching a few popular television shows. That said, I’m the least likely person to pick up a book of this subject matter and read it cover-to-cover. Fortunately, my trusted colleague knew me better than I knew myself. She insisted that I give this book a chance. And so, Stiff was thrust into my hands at the Philadelphia Airport. Hours passed. By the time I completed my cross-country flight and landed in Las Vegas — courtesy of a weather delay and a two-hour layover — I completely devoured all 303 pages.
What a fabulous read.
* * *
What happens to your body when you donate it to science?
You know what I’m talking about. Remember the little box you check on your driver’s license where you agree to become an organ transplant donor? Or perhaps you or your loved ones will end up signing a last-minute legal agreement during your final conscious moments which turns your body over to medical research.
When I mull over these prospects, I think about my internal organs being used to possibly save a life. Perhaps my body might be useful in testing some kind of new drug that cures a dreaded disease. Who knows?
The author doesn’t mince words or hide the truth. In fact, there’s some chance that your skull is going to be severed from your torso and your face ends up in basting a turkey pan sitting in front of a 23-year-old medical student learning how to perform facelifts. Seriously. If you always wanted a facelift, but couldn’t afford one, here’s your chance to get one for free. To bad you’re going to be dead.
There’s also a reasonable chance your body parts will be purposefully blown up in some kind of controlled munitions explosion as part of an experiment on behalf of a military contractor. Once again, I’ve heard about giving life and limb for one’s country. But cutting off your feet and setting them on a land mine that’s about to explode in an effort to test anti-incendiary footwear probably isn’t what you had in mind.
Your body might even end up cut into a dozen parts — each advancing a separate cause of “scientific research” in some way. In fact, this is more than likely.
If you find these gruesome prospects troubling — and I expect many do — author Roach provides admirable justification for all of these postmortem activities, and more. She not only doesn’t hide what goes on behind closed doors at research labs, universities, and medical centers — she makes an utterly convincing case for why cadavers are essential towards our understanding, not necessarily of the dead — but rather the living.
Consider her remarkable chapter on experiments with cadavers which involve air crashes. I’ll bet everyone has sat buckled into a flying fuselage and wondered what it would be like to experience the terror of an airplane spinning out of control. Is is safer to sit in the front of the plane or the rear? Is is better for the plane to hit land or water? How might you improve your chances of surviving a plane crash?
Roach goes into considerable detail on several morbidly interesting topics such as this. For instance, we learn it’s almost impossible for a human body to survive hitting water from a height greater than 500 feet. This is because 500 feet is the distance at which the human body starts falling at 70 mph, which is the approximate maximum speed a living person can survive a water impact. Unfortunately, most air crashes with water landings have the unfortunate victims traveling at more than 120 mph. In fact, 120 mph is the speed of terminal velocity, which means that’s the maximum speed at which a body would typically free fall if it was dropped from very high up. Moreover, death would likely occur because the rib cage would be pressed inward at the moment the torso make contact with water, severing most internal organs. The rib cage is a wonderful protector of all that’s inside. But it simply can’t withstand the blunt force of the impact of a long fall, as those bones are transformed from a protective cage into a series of very efficient cutting devices.
Cadavers taught us much this.
Roach’s book includes chapters on medical research, the physiology of the human body after death, test-dummies and car crash-impact studies, air crashes, military-related experiments and research, crucifixion, defining death, the human head, and other discussions which often touch on morality and ethics.
And to this point, what about the men and women who make their living spending most of their time with the dead? The author interviews several specialists who perform autopsies which are connected to vicious crimes and horrible deaths. In one instance, the coroner says what we probably expect to hear — that the job really isn’t bothersome at all once you do it for awhile. But the coroner also makes a rather remarkable confession that it was important for him to work only with bodies of people he didn’t know. In a sense, these arms and legs and flesh and skulls with blood oozing onto a metal table had no real identities since they were unknown. But in rare instances when a corpse came in and the dead person was known to the coroner, most professionals excuse themselves in those cases. This was done because the rather gruesome act of carvng flesh and parsing private body parts unexpectedly has become something personal.
Roach even goes so far to write what I think is a remarkably insightful passage which gives this topic a much greater perspective:
I find the dead easier to be around than the dying. They are not in pain, and not afraid of death. There are no awkward silences and conversations that dance around the obvious. The half hour I spent around my mother as a dead person was easier than the many hours I had spent with her as a live person dying in pain.
* * *
We’re all going to die someday.
You’ve heard that before. But have you ever really spent much time thinking about it? Admittedly, I haven’t.
It’s remarkable, even miraculous you might say, that the vessel which houses our vital organs and all which gives us life is an hourglass with limited grains of sand. Every hour and each day a few more seconds pass through life’s chasm. One day, there is no more sand. Not only shall our bodies deteriorate, they will gradually wither away to dust. And many, many years from now even the dust will be no more. And perhaps no one will know we ever existed.
In the meantime, what we do with these chambers of life is not only critical to our happiness and how long we might live, but — as Stiff eloquently shows us — might actually advance our knowledge an understanding of ourselves and each other long after we’re gone.
Which brings me to a final unintended consequence of reading this book. As I said, this isn’t a book I would have picked up on my own. Yet, I found it highly entertaining and informative.
I must now wonder — how many other extraordinary books like this one are out there one bookshelves, in libraries, or on the Internet pleading to be read? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands?
Reading this book took me perhaps 6 to 8 hours to complete, about the same amount of time I might typically spend watching a few ball games or playing poker on a Friday night. Of all the ball games and Friday nights in my life, isn’t it worth just one of them to gain a greater understanding about the human body, and more precisely myself?
Seriously — what activities are more important than the insights and lessons we gain from books?
Alas, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers has taught me something I least expected.
Writer’s Note: Special thanks to Jennifer Gay.