Thursday, March 24, 2011

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), Mary Roach

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 4 Pierogies

Review: If you suffer from morbid curiosity this book is for you. If you are a senstive sort who is disburbed by death, suffering and affronts to human dignity you probably want to avoid Stiff. Personally, I am both but, as usual, the the morbidly curious part of my nature won out so I read Stiff cover to cover even though portions of it upset me. In other words, there are a couple things I learned from Stiff that I think I would have been better off not knowing. I am now even more displeased with the prospect of dying than I was before. However, there is no doubt that this is a fascinating book.

Stiff is a book about cadavers. It covers everything from the decomposition process of human bodies, to organ donation, to embalming, to historical grave robbing, to medical research etc. Every chapter covers a different aspect of how human cadavers have been used through the ages and what actually happens to human remains. It is really interesting and I couldn't put it down even when it was disturbing me.

Stiff is mainly advertised for its unexpected humor. The cover claims it is "sidesplitting" and people carry on constantly about how funny Stiff is. There is certainly humor running through the book and it is necessary to balance out the depressing nature of the material. That said the humor is inoffensive and I think strikes the right tone of keeping the book from becoming too depressing without being insensitive. I would not call it "sidesplitting" however - "amusing" is more apt. Truly funny stuff usually has a bit of an edge or is a little dark. The humor in Stiff is so tame that it cannot really reach true comic heights but that's okay because dark humor would not have been appropriate in light of the sensitive nature of the subject matter.

Stiff is mandatory reading for anyone who wants to make an informed decision about the disposition of their remains. All the choices are examined in detail. In the end, Stiff very much encourages its readers to sign up for organ donation and, to a lesser extent, donating your body to medical research (organ donation is only possible when the person is brain dead but technically still alive so organ donation vs. research donation are mutually exclusive choices).

I think Roach is generally successful in her push for organ donation but not so much for research donation. Roach is very cirtical of the 50%+ of families of brain dead (but physically alive) individuals who do not consent to organ donation. I understand her point as "wasting" transplantable organs when there are so many in need is disturbing. However, I am not nearly as critical of familes who don't want to donate. I'm sorry but I cannot even imagine the pain of deciding what to do with a brain-dead loved one. Then to have hospital counsellors guilt-tripping you into letting them cut the still beating heart out of your loved one to give to a perfect stranger, like hyenas circling a wounded baby elephant, is pretty disturbing as well. Roach did get me to think about the issue for the first time though. I think I would be up for it if I knew the details. If I knew my heart was going to buy a few more years for an older man with his wife, I'm down. If my heart is going to a drug-addict, collectivist or college student - NO WAY. Look, I find drug addiction ridiculous and I won't be a part of it, collectivists (socialists, commies and marxists) do not need to be encouraged in their belief that they are entitled to other people's stuff and college kids are insufferable. If I ran into my college-self and had to listen to her drunkenly babble about how a vote for Ralph Nader will send a message about third party viability in America I would PUNCH HER IN THE FACE. I think I will let my family decide in the case of my brain death what to do. I am very indecisive.

After reading Stiff there is no way I am donating my body to medical research though. Roach makes the pursuasive point that you might as well donate your body for research because there is no dignity in being eaten from the inside out by maggots and liquifying into a putrid sludge. Point taken, but at least I would be doing that in the privacy of my own coffin and not naked in front of disgusted young medical students with their pretty hair and perky breasts. Sorry that is a humiliation I cannot endure - even in death.

Basically, Stiff made me realize that death is an unavoidably humiliating process that can't be avoided. The great equalizer indeed. I think I should start trying to come to terms with this reality now because it is going to take me awhile.