People give a lot of thought to death. Or perhaps I should say I do: I give a lot of thought to my gravestone. I want a big black marble job, carved with my name and dates in big letters and, beneath them, Rick Derringer’s immortal words, “Did somebody say keep on rockin’?” Oh, and a built-in ashtray and beer-cooler apparatus for the kinds of teenage waste products who like to hang out late at night in cemeteries, smoking and drinking and pondering the eternal mysteries of life, death, and how to score another six-pack. I was a teenage waste product myself once and would have greatly appreciated
That said, I’ve avoided thinking about the far messier question of the disposal of my mortal remains. It’s hardly surprising, if you think that being a corpse means facing only a few lousy—gruesome, leaky, smelly, undignified, appalling, unappealing—choices. So I’m glad I ran across Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which has the rare distinction of being a laugh-out-loud funny book about, well, to use Roach’s own term, stiffs. Roach plays historian, sociologist, and advocate for body donation, but I like to think that her chief role is as cadaver career counselor. Roach would have us view death as the ultimate in second careers, proof that F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he said that there are no second acts in American life. And how many careers there are to choose from! From the automotive industry to the agricultural sector to the more glamorous fields of art and medicine—the sad truth is that most of us will have more varied opportunities in death than we ever will in life.
As such chapter titles as “A Head Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” and “How to Know If You’re Dead” illustrate, Roach—who originally explored many of the issues discussed in Stiff in her online Salon health column—can hardly be accused of taking a sober approach to human-cadaver use. And I suspect there will be some who find her witty and, er, deadpan prose style more than a mite disrespectful. But Roach approaches her morbid and often gruesome subject with an indefatigable sense of humor and a refreshing directness. “The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken,” she notes, as she stands in a room containing 40 decapitated human heads sitting in—you guessed it—roasting pans, preparatory to their being used for a face-lift refresher course sponsored by a medical center. And she can hardly disguise her delight when, while she’s watching a cadaver named UM 006 being readied for an impact-tolerance test, a radio plays Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”
But if her tone is irreverent—”You do not need brains to go to the Harvard Brain Bank,” she quips, “only a brain”—Roach is a strong believer in the benefits of body donation. Her point of view is as follows: “Why lie around on your back when you can do something interesting and new, something useful?” Talking about a brain-dead patient who has donated her organs, Roach says, “H appears no different from the corpses [in the morgue]. But H is different. She has made three sick people well….Most people don’t manage this sort of thing while they’re alive. Cadavers like H are the dead’s heroes.”
But there are plenty of ways besides organ donation for the dead to play hero, and Roach—who has clearly done her research, most of it decidedly unappetizing—looks into a number of them. She travels to the University of Tennessee Medical Center, where, “in a lovely, forested grove with squirrels leaping in the branches of hickory trees and birds calling and patches of green grass,” volunteers “lie on their backs in the sun, or sometimes the shade, depending on where the researchers put them,” to check out the forensics investigations being done there. But maybe you find communing with nature a little too tree-huggerish. If so, Roach offers the tough-guy field of impact-tolerance research, which is increasing our knowledge of the forces human beings can be exposed to without incurring damage—knowledge that is irreplaceable in helping car manufacturers, for example, build safer automobiles.
Or, getting back to nature, Roach dedicates the better part of a chapter to Susanne Wiigh-Masak, a Swedish biologist-entrepreneur who, to put it bluntly, would like to turn you into mulch. Not that she’d be the first person—as Roach notes—to do so; a researcher named Tim Evans did the same thing in 1998, and did it (by gum!) the old-fashioned way, by letting nature take her course (though he did have to get out the rake a few times). Wiigh-Masak’s method is both more sophisticated and less labor-intensive, and is less likely to offend the sensibilities of the deceased’s family, who, unless their name is Addams, will hardly relish the opportunity to rake Uncle Jake. After being frozen in a vat of liquid nitrogen, the mulch-destined cadaver is broken into pieces “more or less the size of ground chuck,” by either ultrasound waves or mechanical vibration. The freeze-dried compost can then be used to help nurture a hydrangea or marijuana plant in honor of the mulchee.
Of course, most people are vain enough that they just want their corpses to look good as long as possible. For these folks, Roach has bad news. Nothing—and certainly not your standard mortuary embalming job, which Roach says is “designed to keep a cadaver looking fresh and uncadaverous for the funeral service, but not much longer”—is guaranteed to stave off decomposition forever. Why? Because, Roach says, even the best embalming job is unlikely to eliminate bacteria. All they have to do is sit around twiddling their tiny bacterial thumbs until the formaldehyde in the cadaver breaks down, and then…it’s party time. And that’s not to mention all of the anus suturing, purge aspirating, and eyelid stuffing that goes on behind the scenes at your local funeral parlor. And cremation is no walk in the park either, Roach makes clear—though, speaking just for myself, I’ll take a fiery oven over a sutured anus any day.
As for those trendy folks who always have to be cutting-edge, Roach offers up the tissue digester, which uses water and lye to reduce a cadaver to 2 or 3 percent of its weight in a few hours. “What remains,” says Roach, “is a pile of decollagenated bones that can be crumbled in one’s fingers” and a “coffee-colored” liquid that can be safely poured down the drain.
Nor does Roach ignore the arts, where the dead are just beginning to come into their own thanks to the pioneering work of German anatomist Gunther Von Hagens, who will be happy to “plastinate” your corpse for inclusion in his traveling whole-body art exhibit, Körperwelten.” But lest you think body plastination is something you might like to try at home with materials purchased from your local hobby shop, Roach points out that most of Von Hagens’ work is done in a factory in China (let’s hope it’s not the same one that makes my “coffee-colored” health drink) that employs hundreds of workers.
If you’re still not happy with your post-life options, just be glad you didn’t live in the days before embalming. Or, for that matter, in the days before legalized body donations to medical schools. Roach spends a chapter detailing the bad old days when medical schools were the kind of place where “you could take your son’s amputated leg and sell it for beer money,” and when grave-robbing was so common a practice that even Thomas Sewell, the founder of what is now George Washington University Medical School, was convicted of the offense. Nowadays, medical schools have donated cadavers aplenty; indeed, with the advent of digital anatomy instruction, the anatomy-school cadaver may someday be handed the pink slip.
Ultimately, Stiff is one of those wonderful books that offers up enlightenment in the guise of entertainment, thus making it palatable to the kind of living stiffs who don’t like having their thoughts provoked. And the proof is in the pudding: Stiff has caused me to re-evaluate my post-death plans. I’d always been one of those cut-to-the-chase guys who wanted to be rendered into ash, and pronto; I don’t know the scientific name for it, but I have a neurotic fear of having my genitals jeered at by callow medical students. But having read Stiff, I’m now inclined to go the organ-donor route. There’s something inspiring in the thought of my organs living on beyond me, my eyes ogling pretty girls, my liver and kidneys helping to process expensive single malts, my heart beating faster every time a Rick Derringer song comes on the radio. Hey, anything to help out my fellow man. CP