Sunday, December 16, 2012

303 (2012 #48). Stiff

by Mary Roach

I read this for an online book discussion that never happened.  Subtitled "The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," that's just what this book is about.

Mary Roach uses wry humor to approach a difficult topic - the various ways human bodies are used after death.  Chapters address their use in science and medical training (anatomy classes and the practice of surgery), testing the impact of car crashes and bullets, and in determining what happened in an airplane crash.

She also discusses body snatching, medicinal cannibalism, and experiments with crucifixion and with body decay (which should help forensic science) and composting (more environmentally friendly than burial or cremation), as well as plastination (which has led to exhibitions like Body Worlds and Bodies: The Exhibition).

If that's not enough to make you squeamish, there is also a chapter entitled "How to Know If You're Dead" (subtitled "Beating heart cadavers, live burial, and the scientific search for the soul"), and one - aptly begun with an illustration of Frankenstein from the movie - called "Just A Head," about "Decapitation, reanimation, and the human head transplant."

It may all sound sensationalist, but it's not.  The book is well-researched (there's a nine-page bibliography), and Roach uses just enough humor to lighten up this serious subject.  I really appreciated her final chapter, where she wrote about what she'd like to see done with her own body, but acknowledged, "It makes little sense to try to control what happens to your remains when you are no longer around to reap the joys or benefits of that control....survivors shouldn't have to do something they're uncomfortable with or ethically opposed to."  (page 290)

Even though we didn't discuss it, I'm glad I read this book, as I learned a lot.  Because of her wry touch with difficult subjects, I'd be interested in reading Roach's other booksSpook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

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