Excerpt from Stiff by Mary Roach, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

by Mary Roach

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  • First Published:
    Mar 2003, 224 pages
    May 2004, 304 pages

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The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.

If I were to take a cruise, I would prefer that it be one of those research cruises, where the passengers, while still spending much of the day lying on their backs with blank minds, also get to help out with a scientist's research project. These cruises take their passengers to unknown, unimagined places. They give them the chance to do things they would not otherwise get to do.

I guess I feel the same way about being a corpse. Why lie around on your back when you can do something interesting and new, something useful. For every surgical procedure developed, from heart transplants to gender reassignment surgery, cadavers have been there alongside the surgeons, making history in their own quiet, sundered way. For two thousand years, cadavers – some willingly, some unwittingly – have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. Cadavers were around to help test France's first guillotine, the "humane" alternative to hanging. They were there at the labs of Lenin's embalmers, helping test the latest techniques. They've been there (on paper) at Congressional hearings, helping make the case for mandatory seat belts. They've ridden the Space Shuttle (okay, pieces of them) at NASA's behest, helped a graduate student in Tennessee debunk spontaneous human combustion, been crucified in a Parisian laboratory to test the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin.

In exchange for their experiences, these cadavers agree to a sizable amount of gore. They are dismembered, cut open, rearranged. But here's the thing: they don't endure anything. 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 Superman point of view: What a shame to waste these powers, to not use them for the betterment of humankind.

This is a book about notable achievements made while dead. There are people long forgotten for their contributions while alive, but immortalized in the pages of books and journals. On my wall is a calendar from the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The photograph for October is of a piece of human skin, marked up with arrows and tears; it was used by surgeons to figure out whether an incision would be less likely to tear if it ran lengthwise or crosswise. To me, ending up an exhibit in the Mütter Museum or a skeleton in medical school classroom is like donating money for a park bench after you're gone: A nice thing to do, a little hit of immortality. This is a book about the sometimes odd, often shocking, always compelling things cadavers have done.

Not that there's anything wrong with just lying around on your back. In its way, rotting is interesting too, as we will see. It's just that there are other ways to spend your time as a cadaver. Get involved with science. Be an art exhibit. Become part of a tree. Some options for you to think about.

Death. It doesn't have to be boring.


There are those who will disagree with me, who feel that to do anything other than bury or cremate the dead is disrespectful. That includes, I suspect, writing about them. Many people will find this book disrespectful. There is nothing amusing about being dead, they will say. Ah, but there is. Being dead is absurd. It's the silliest situation you'll find yourself in. Your limbs are floppy and uncooperative. Your mouth hangs open. Being dead is unsightly and stinky and embarrassing, and there's not a damn thing to be done about it.

From Stiff by Mary Roach. Copyright 2003 Mary Roach, all rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher W.W. Norton, or the author.

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