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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Mary Roach

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Author:Mary Roach

By Scott Carlson | Posted 4/30/2003

What's so funny about a dead body? Nothing, of course, if it's Grandmother. But those who work with dead bodies frequently, such as the detectives in Homicide, tend to adopt a gallows humor. Mary Roach, who saw her share of corpses by the time she was done researching Stiff, has learned how to cut the tension with a good joke. It turns out that Stiff is one of the funniest, best-written, most thoroughly researched books of the year--a constant pleasure, even when Roach is describing, in graphic detail, exploratory surgery on a cadaver.

True to its subtitle, The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, the book traces the various uses for and research on dead bodies. Despite the clammy company, Roach makes the trip enjoyable with a scalpel-sharp eye for details and a lively wit. For example, while visiting with plastic surgeons who are practicing their trade on a set of decapitated heads, Roach asks one female surgeon if she plans to donate her body to science. The surgeon says no. Roach writes:

It turns out that what Marilena objected to was a couple of the surgeons' taking photographs of their cadaver heads. When you take a photograph of a patient for a medical journal, she points out, you have the patient sign a release. The dead can't refuse to sign releases, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't want to. This is why cadavers in photographs in pathology and forensics journals have black bars over their eyes, like women on the Dos and Don'ts pages of Glamour. . . . As she slides back her chair, she looks down at the benapkined form and says, "May she rest in peace." I hear it as "pieces," but that's just me.

Roach's wit does not outshine her journalistic skills. You'll learn about cannibalism in China, grave robbing in England, and, in a graphic little footnote, necrophilia in Nevada. In one chapter, which focuses on a forensics-studies program that analyzes decomposing humans, Roach describes the step-by-step process that reduces a body to bits of bone and dirt. As one of the researchers explains, it starts with the body's own enzymes, eating at the cell structure under the skin: "The liquid from the cells gets between the layers of skin and loosens them. As that progresses, you see skin sloughage." Then the maggots arrive.

OK, you see where it's going here. But, really, this information is always fascinating, if you can stifle a gag from time to time. And Roach's touch is always sensitive and empathetic. She points out that these researchers may do unpleasant, even offensive, work, but they are helping the living survive car accidents, figure out plane crashes, and cure cancers.

"People who work with cadavers do not, as a general rule, enjoy the spotlight," Roach immediately points out. "Their work is misunderstood and their funding vulnerable to negative publicity." Roach should be applauded for getting into this world and coming out with a book that both entertains the living and honors the dead.

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