For the record, family: Do not donate my body to science when I die. Let them harvest an organ or two, scoop out my eyes like melon balls, carve off a carpet swatch of skin.
Then burn me up good.
Scary to say, but my obsession with death, dying and the post-life has only rocketed since I recently re-read Mary Roach’s weirdly engrossing, and joyously gross, 2003 bestseller “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.”
The title nearly says it all: Roach’s beautifully reported book is a blunt, euphemism-free, aggressively lighthearted examination of exactly what happens to cadavers that are donated to science and research. (Cue: barfing emoji.)
Facts, history, grisly details and the author’s vivacious gallows humor make the unutterable utterly readable. Roach is smart; she pauses for philosophical reflection about what’s before her, providing a finish of deep and dignified meditation to what could have been perverted voyeurism catering to “Faces of Death” sickos.
The breezy read features jarring chapter subtitles — “Human Crash Test Dummies and the Ghastly, Necessary Science of Impact Tolerance”; “On Human Decay and What Can Be Done About It”; “Medicinal Cannibalism and the Case of the Human Dumplings” — that are so graphic, they may be all you need to get it. For example, that first one: Yes, dead bodies are used as crash test dummies in vehicles. Splat.
Plunge into the pages and you’ll get the smells, sights and sounds of expired bodies rotting, ripping, being gutted and even crucified. (Scientists still want to know how Jesus died on the cross. Freshly dead bodies are a prime instructional aid. Pass the nails.)
The doctors and scientists Roach meets are a reticent assortment. But she intrepidly presses on.
Sometimes a source will turn his back on her, suspect of her macabre motives.
“You want a vivid description of what’s going through my brain as I’m cutting through a liver and all these larvae are spilling out all over me and juice pops out of the intestines?” snaps a vexed forensics examiner.
Roach responds to us, sotto voce: “I kind of did, but I kept quiet.”
“Stiff” rests on my growing, groaning shelf of superlatively morbid but essential books on mortality, like “How We Die,” “Final Exit,” “The Denial of Death” and other festive titles. I recommend them all. They will, while you’re still living, change your life.
4 thoughts on “A darkly delightful book of the dead”
Mary Roach is one of my favourite nonfiction writers, and Stiff is my favourite book of hers, though I do love Gulp as well (so many poop-related anecdotes!). Glad I’m not the only one with a death section in their personal library.
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She is great, right? And Im so glad to hear someone else adores that winky, wily Columbo. He is truly addictive. I’m in terrific Amsterdam right now and sadly probably won’t make it to the creepy-lovely Vrolick medical museum. It’s like $40 or more via Uber and I can’t quite figure the public transport way out there. I’m so lame. Shame — I want deformed babies in jars! Meantime, you gave us another funny and frank sojourn, this time in Booty-best. Great stuff per the usual.
I love this book, and this author!!
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She is amazing! Her other books, Grunt, Bonk and Gulp, are almost as fascinating. She’s a great reporter with a wicked sense of humor. Thanks, Jay.