Take me to the morgue

By By Christopher Wallace

By Christopher Wallace

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversBy Mary RoachNorton$13.95

Everyone wonders what happens when we die. It is one of life’s most fundamental, unanswered questions–unless you decide to donate your body to science. In that case, Mary Roach’s book Stiff can tell you exactly what can happen in the bizarre afterlife of your corpse.

Stiff is the type of book that makes you want to get your body to the crematorium before it even gets cold.

Otherwise–since you’ve probably been persuaded by save-a-life ad campaigns to do the right thing and hand over your organs and tissues posthumously in a “You: Everything must go!” sale–you’ll end up on a bunk in a stack freezer, whittled away bit by bit, an eye here, a hand there.

While Roach describes in detail the morbid and unsettling aspects of the physical body we leave behind (and what scientists do to it), she is delicate and precient enough to show respect for the dead as (former) people and dissociate the corporeal from the spiritual.

The book opens with Roach going behind the scenes at UC-San Francisco into a room filled with disembodied heads resting in roasting pans atop rows of tables. Roach is introduced to Yvonne, the lab manager/decapitator who is wary of squeamish journalists watching the medical students practice surgery on the heads.

There, Roach meets “Ben”–the name strangely given to a head on which two plastic surgeons-in-training are performing a facelift. The students tell Roach that they name the heads in an effort to humanize them out of respect for the person to whom the head was once attached, while at the same time objectifying the parts of cadavers enough to be able to practice their craft on them without losing too much sleep.

Later, Roach visits an expansive ranch where forensic scientists study the ways in which bodies decompose in different environments. Not far from the main building is a field filled with naked corpses in repose, placed in morbid peacefulness evoking the stylism of a Japanese rock garden. Roach is assaulted by the sight and stench of the bodies of people who lived and dreamed and loved but are now rotting and decomposing into the basic elements of matter. Though her companions lose the contents of their stomachs to the gravel driveway, Roach is of sturdier stock. Her retelling of the tour acknowledges the uncannyness of the experience with a gallows humor that is piercingly insightful, provocative and, well, really funny.

Perhaps more importantly, Stiff is thoroughly educational, relating the history of the use of dead human beings in medical experiments–from human crash-test dummies to crucifixion experiments–full of fascinating and surprising facts unknown to the general reader.

Ultimately, Roach’s approach to her topic drives to the very essence of our mortality. By probing the edges of the impropriety of her subject while leaving intact the mystical shroud surrounding the spiritual and metaphysical aspects of death and dying, her narrative is warm and witty–a respectful tale of the skeleton in the closet.