Thursday, February 9, 2012

ReView of STIFF: THE CURIOUS LIVES OF HUMAN CADAVERS by Mary Roach


   Let's get right to it.  There are plenty of people who believe this book to be funny, comical, or maybe even hilarous at certain points.  To the contrary, albeit fairly enlightening, this book is nothing but morbid, disturbing, and just down right shockingly jaw-dropping.  But apart from the shock element, it is just an incredibly researched book.  Mary Roach gives you historical data, medical material, accounts of leading university research projects, companies with leading technologies, mortuary and foresic science, dialogues from the best of the best in the fields, and best of all first-hand experiences of her own.  To add to that, she has a pretty impressive list of references from which you can delve further into after reading the book.

 There might be a brief hesitation to continue this book as you begin to read it, the reasons might very much be personal.  Although, if you continue you will find yourself eventually gripped.  You become captured by the writer's enthusiasm for the subject of cadavers.  She says, 'science involving the dead was particularly foreign and strange and, in its repellent way, enticing.'  This is in fact what begins to take place as you read it.  You feel repulsed by the absurdity of what we as a culture do with cadavers, and yet gripped by the curiosity of the unknown and bizarre.  To top it off, she presents enough medical, technical, and even ethical (moral?) context to enlighten you of things you may have wondered about and never found yourself knowing more about.

   One of the most displeasing impressions about the book is its sense of 'remove.'  You've got physicians in medical school learning to depersonalize the human form the cadaver once had and treat it as a biologically useful tool for the purposes of saving lives in the future by learning the anatomy of the human body.  This by far, is probably the better of all the ways people distance themselves from the human lives of the cadavers.  The list goes on to include highway safety tests, bioengineering impact tests, testing airplane scenarios and internal trauma of the human body, even testing the impact of bullets and gun ranges on the human body.  You might want to think twice about what you would like to do with your body when you have passed away, and whether donating it to 'science' is something you want to do.  This book is definitely a useful guide in helping you get a closer view towards that.

   Overall, though, the book is very digestable.  It is not a lengthy book, and it's sectioned into individual chapters that you can tackle individually without having to read it beginning to end.  You can put this book down after reading a chapter, come back to it, and you will not have lost your place in it.  Additionally, the author did a fantastic job of immersing information with well-positioned questions that were also relevant to the topic. As a result, you become very active in the reading.

   For Michiganders, there are quite a few stories about Wayne State University Bioengineering Department and a funeral home in Farmington Hills.  For fans of Dr. Oz, he is definitely mentioned more than once toward the end of the book.  And for those of you who will consider alternatives to burials, such as cremations, you might be interested to know what other technologies (beyond cremations) are being 'cooked up' (ie. tissue disolving and human composting).

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