Thursday, March 12, 2015

We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and death. In between do what we can to forget

Let's talk about dead bodies!

I always assumed Mary Roach would be an author I would like, but it took me forever to pick up any of her books. When I finally read Bonk I realized yes, I have been stupid to put her off. So not too long after that, I picked up a copy of her book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and it was even better. I enjoy science explained to me by non-science people.

You could sort of say Stiff's purpose is to convince you to donate your body to science. And she makes a lot of very good points as to why it would be a good thing to do. The book is all about the benefits that humanity has gained because of experiments done on dead bodies, the lives saved because of organ donations, and even the dead bodies that are used to help solve crimes (or just plane/car accidents). Dead bodies are doing so much and I'm just here sitting on the couch. Way to make me look bad.

I say Roach is trying to convince you to donate your body to science, but maybe that's not quite accurate. She's not saying you HAVE to donate your body. She's not saying that if you don't donate your body that you're selfish and evil and contributing to the downfall of society. She talks about all of the good done that was a direct result of dead bodies and makes the case that when a person is gone their body isn't them, so is more subtle with the suggestion that you, dear reader, maybe want to consider this course of action. But she is also clear that if you don't want to, that's OK. If you wish for your body to be donated after you die, but the loved ones you left behind would rather that didn't happen, maybe let the living decide. Because ultimately you're gone, but they're still here and are going to have to be the ones to live with the decision and do what they have to do to get through the loss. In the end the choice is personal.

I feel like I've made this book sound like a lot more of a downer than it is. Yes, it's dealing with death and dead bodies, but it's a funny book. There's humor in everything. Of course this could go very wrong very quickly so it's a good thing we have Roach's tone. There are a number of footnotes through the book, so when I saw a little asterisk next to "Renaissance philosopher Giolamo Pontano*" I expected an explanation or funny story about the guy. Instead I saw "*I'd never heard of him either." When I saw that I smiled and thought "Oh, Ms. Roach, I am a fan of you. Well played."

And it's not all about the good done with donated bodies. She also looks into more traditional methods of dealing with the newly departed, be it embalming (and going through the history of!), cremation, or some new methods being tried out like freeze drying. There isn't too much about funerals themselves, though she does have a touching bit when she talks about the anatomy students holding a funeral for the bodies they were going to be learning from during the year.

I feel like I'm not doing this book much justice. I'll blame that on my sore throat and general laziness. If you want to read a good review, check out Kayleigh's post which does a much better job.

If the topic is at all something that interests you, I would say try this out. If you like Roach's book, try this. If you like science-y things for the non-science crowd, try this.

Gif rating:

Title quote from page 84

Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Norton, 2003.