My third pick for the KC Public Library’s While the City Sleeps reading program was Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. I listened to the audiobook of her Bonk about sex last summer, so I knew already her kind of delightfully weird mind and irreverent writing style. The copy of Stiff I got for free, passed through a friend already finished with it.

Roach manages to take the awkward, uncomfortable, and often (ahem) grave subject of what happens to our bodies after death and make it less so using facts, investigative reporting, and a good, necessary dose of humor for the average non-medical layperson to the subject. She examines donating bodies to science and medical education, embalming, forensics, spends time at the human decay research facility in Knoxville, Tennessee, observes the collision/injury testing labs at Wayne State University, and even travels to China to investigate urban myths of modern cannibalism. The history in Stiff is quite fascinating—especially past examples of medicinal remedy quackery using prepared body parts for all sorts of ailments.  Many parts of the book clicked in my memory—I saw a documentary on television once about the Knoxville decay center and when she mentioned plasticization in one chapter I remembered that several years ago I went to the Bodies Revealed exhibit when it made its way through Kansas City. I thought the exhibit was equally fascinating and disconcerting. Later I heard something about it that the bodies may not have been willingly donated, but just taken from prisons. Can of controversial worms!

Though I am not too easily squeamish and skeeved out by disturbing matters in books or television, I can’t say that I felt compelled to read Stiff during my lunch breaks… some descriptions were… not gory necessarily… “vivid” might be the right word. Like the chapters on decomposition and human head transplants; while completely amazing, scientifically speaking, weren’t exactly appetite builders. I’m also so glad this didn’t include and scratch-n-sniff stickers… ha! 😉

I thought this might be a more emotionally difficult book to read, but Roach did a great job keeping it light and the medical jargon to a minimum. This book isn’t about death or the act of dying or the emotional impact for left-behind mourners, but about what happens to a cadaver when it is free of human life force, and all the possible (and often scientifically/educationally beneficial) uses for it. She does talk about experiments that were undertaken in the past to see if the physical location of the spirit could be discovered, and a study using cadavers to figure out where exactly on his body Jesus was nailed to the cross (palm, wrist, etc.), but that’s about as religious or spiritual as it gets. (Her next book published after this one, Spook in 2005, takes a scientific look at the human soul and afterlife, and I have it down on my ever-growing to-be-read list!)

I was especially interested, though, in the final chapter that included ecological disposal of remains, specifically for composting and fertilization, pioneered by a biologist in Sweden. I really love the concept that we come from the earth and should respectfully return to it, to nurture it and a new living thing (a tree, for example). I guess I always thought that’s eventually what would happen anyway, even embalmed and placed in a coffin, but I learned it doesn’t really work that way, there’s more to it than that. Stiff was published ten years ago and I’d be interested to find out what advances have been made on this composting process. As I am not a particularly religious person, this option is something I would absolutely consider for my own body after death.

Stiff was my third read of five books total for the 2013 KC Library Adult Winter Reading Program: While the City Sleeps, hosted by the Kansas City Public Library.

Read from February 9 to 16, 2013.

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