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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This book is not about death as in dying. Death, as in dying, is sad and profound. There is nothing funny about losing someone you love, or about being the person about to be lost. This book is about the already dead, the anonymous, behind-the-scenes dead. The cadavers I have seen were not depressing or heart-wrenching or repulsive. They seemed sweet and well-intentioned, sometimes sad, occasionally amusing. Some were beautiful, some monsters. Some wore sweat pants and some were naked, some in pieces, others whole.

All were strangers to me. I would not want to watch an experiment, no matter how interesting or important, that involved the remains of someone I knew and loved. (There are a few who do. Ronn Wade, who runs the anatomical gifts program at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, told me that some years back a woman whose husband had willed his body to the university asked if she could watch the dissection. Wade gently said no.) I feel this way not because what I would be watching is disrespectful, or wrong, but because I could not, emotionally, separate that cadaver from the person it recently was. One's own dead are more than cadavers, they are place holders for the living. They are a focus, a receptacle, for emotions that no longer have one. The dead of science are always strangers.


Let me tell you about my first cadaver. I was 36, and it was 81. It was my mother's. I notice here that I used the possessive "my mother's," as in, the cadaver that belonged to my mother, not the cadaver that was my mother. My mom was never a cadaver; no person ever is. You are a person and then you cease to be a person, and a cadaver takes your place. My mother was gone. The cadaver was her hull. Or that was how it seemed to me.

It was a warm September morning. The funeral home had told me and my brother Rip to show up there about an hour before the church service. We thought there were papers to fill out. The mortician ushered us into a large, dim, hushed room with heavy drapes and too much air-conditioning. There was a coffin at one end, but this seemed normal enough, for a mortuary. My brother and I stood there awkwardly. The mortician cleared his throat and looked toward the coffin. I suppose we should have recognized it, as we'd picked it out and paid for it the day before, but we didn't. Finally the man walked over and gestured at it, bowing slightly, in the manner of a maitre d' showing diners to their table. There, just beyond his open palm, was our mother's face. I wasn't expecting it. We hadn't requested a viewing, and the memorial service was closed-coffin. We got it anyway. They'd shampooed and waved her hair and made up her face. They'd done a great job, but I felt taken, like we'd asked for the basic carwash, and they'd gone ahead and detailed her. Hey, I wanted to say, We didn't order this. But of course I said nothing. Death makes us unerringly polite.

The mortician told us we had an hour with her, and quietly retreated. Rip looked at me. An hour? What do you do with a dead person for an hour? Mom had been sick for a long time; we'd done our grieving and crying and saying good-bye. It was like being served a slice of pie you didn't want to eat. We felt it would be rude to leave, after all the trouble they'd gone to. We walked up to the coffin for a closer look. I placed my palm on her forehead, not so much as a gesture of tenderness, but to see what a dead person felt like. Her skin was cold the way metal is cold, or glass. I was behaving like a gawker, not a mourner. One last time, I was letting my mother down.

A week ago at that time, Mom would have been reading the Valley News and doing the Jumble. As far as I know, she'd done the Jumble every morning for the past forty-five years. Sometimes in the hospital, I'd crawl up on the bed with her and we'd work on it together. She was bedridden, and it was one of the last things she could still do and enjoy. I looked at Rip. Should we all do the Jumble together one last time? Rip went out to the car to get the paper. We leaned on the coffin and read the clues aloud. That was when I cried. It was the small things that got to me that week: finding her Bingo winnings when we cleaned out her dresser drawers, emptying the 14 individually wrapped pieces of chicken from her freezer, each one labeled "chicken" in her careful penmanship. And the Jumble. Seeing her cadaver was strange, but it wasn't really sad. It wasn't important. It wasn't her.

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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