Friday, June 15, 2012

Stiff, The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

I ran across this book while browsing through my recommendations on Goodreads. I am a firm believer in organ donation. I have checked the box on my driver's license, assuming that they would harvest any organs that were worth taking to save a life. In the course of reading this book, I have learned that organ donation and donating your body to science aren't the same thing. I have never looked into what could be done with a body once passed it along to science, and I was curious how those that have left us can continue to help us.

I have long been aware that cadavers have been used for medical and criminal research. I was aware of some of the history of mummification, but learned a bit more while reading this book. I'm sure there are many that consider this topic morbid or disturbing. I personally find it fascinating. How do they help improve lives outside of organ donation or criminal research? How long have people been utilizing cadavers to learn about themselves?

Roach is very informative and uses humor well to dis-spell any discomfort the reader might be feeling. She is careful to balance the strangeness and absurdity of some of the situations with respect for those that volunteered their remains for scientific use. She covers topics such as medical school dissection, forensic body farms, crash analysis, heart death vs. brain death, head transplants, and ecological burial.

It was interesting to see how time has changed the way cadavers are treated by scientists. In the past it was illegal, so bodies had to be stolen. Often they were treated callously, and gallows humor was used to put the researchers at ease (this often led to insensitive jokes).  Though the departed didn't notice these slights, it left an uncomfortable feeling with any outside the field and could greatly offend surviving relatives. The attitude towards the cadavers has changed greatly in recent years. It seems partly a PR move (to make it more acceptable to the families of the volunteers), and a result that they volunteered for this important duty.

Another segment I found fascinating was the section about medicinal cannibalism. The old men in Arabia that reportedly dined on nothing but honey for a few months before their death and were then sealed in a stone coffin filled with honey. They were sealed inside for 100 years, then it was unsealed and the honey concoction was sold as medicine for a variety of ailments. What most amazes me is that I know such beliefs still exist, and that often the person that is turned into medicine did not volunteer. There are cases in Africa of albinos being killed for such medicines, which is horrific. I truly wish that this was a thing of the past.

The final segment in the book is about ecological burial, it did not feel as well developed as the other segments but I found it interesting none-the-less. I have always planned to be cremated. I consider cemeteries land that is wasted (it could be used for housing or growing food, etc.) and the embalming chemicals can't be good for the environment. In this segment I learned that cremation can cause mercury to get into the air, I already had figured there was some issues with greenhouse gasses but that it was a relatively small amount in comparison to other things we humans do. I have now learned of two methods that are more environmentally friendly (at least one is even cheaper than cremation): Water reduction and organic burial. I will leave the methods used a mystery for you to discover through the book or in other research. Sadly, I was only able to find them located in Scotland and Sweden. I'm in the process of seeing if there are any places in the US that provide either of these options. I will choose one of these methods if my body is determined unfit for organ donation/scientific research. I see no reason why I should stop being useful after my death.

Good reading!


Jennifer Waggoner Hartling said...

This looks like a great and informative read. You gotta love those books that teach you things you never knew you needed to know! ;)

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