Monday, 22 September 2014

Stiff - The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

by Mary Roach, 4 stars.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that, after dying, there were only a few things that might happen to your cadaver; it could decay in a box six feet under, get burnt and scattered somewhere you loved, or (if you’re a shut-in like me) it could lie undiscovered in your flat for months, providing nourishment for your hungry cats. It turns out that your vacated body has far more options than that. Stiff takes us through the many and varied career options for cadavers, as well as some of those that are thankfully no longer in vogue, in a funny and informative book that gave me plenty of fuel for thought.

Whether it be providing a practical opportunity for surgeons to practice their skills, helping the field of criminal forensics perfect methods of detection and investigation, providing realistic but unfeeling test dummies for safety measures – whether in cars or for troops in battle – or even as human compost, there’s a whole world of good that can be done with your body once you’re no longer using it. There’s also no end of disturbing things that used to be done (and some that still are) such as the examples in the crucifixion experiments, the corpse as medicine, and reanimation.

As for me, I’ve never particularly cared what happened once I’m dead, but having now been given a few options other than the traditional I’ve changed my mind. Much as I wouldn’t torch a house that I’d moved out of so that others could get some use out of it, I now feel the same way about my body. I’ve long been on the Organ Donor Register (if anything’s still working, have at it) and I now quite fancy the idea of advancing the scientific cause in other ways –if I had my way I’d be one of those empty shells lying on a hillside somewhere as scientists check my larvae levels in the hopes an accurate time of death would catch a future psycho. Failing that, I’d also be happy with a spot of human composting, providing fertile ground for some lovely plants to grow from.

If you’re the sort of person who finds phrases like larvae levels and skin slippage stomach-churning you might have a harder time reading this than I did (considering that I’ll vomit if I so much as touch butter, I have a surprisingly strong stomach when it comes to this sort of material), but I guarantee you’ll come away with enough food for thought of your own to make it worthwhile.

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