Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversStiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (audio) by Mary Roach
Published: 2003
Narrated by: Shelly Frasier

What uses are there for cadavers? How have they been acquired over the years? What eventually happens to them? These are the questions that Mary Roach sets out to answer in this surprisingly funny, and often disgusting, book.

We begin with an introduction into how they’re used medically. From anatomy students to a plastic surgery workshop, the cadavers help train our medical professionals so they don’t screw up on the living. I couldn’t help but imagine accidentally walking in on that plastic surgery workshop just before it had started – a large conference room with forty decapitated heads resting on tables. That could be a shock first thing in the morning.

It wasn’t long until I had been lured into a false sense of security. I’m not that squeamish a person, but I don’t do well with bodily fluids or maggots while I’m eating lunch. There were some very specific explanations on what happens to a cadaver as it decomposes. This was at a Body Farm, where they test body decomposition in various environments to get a better understanding for forensic investigation, so it’s very worthwhile science and not gratuitous, but I should have avoided that chapter during lunch.

The chapter on body snatching was quite interesting. Cadavers were, and are, a necessary part of medicine, but in the UK before 1832 only the bodies of executed murderers were legally acceptable to use. There just weren’t enough for the required training in the country, and with no refrigeration to keep the few legal cadavers fresh, they had to look elsewhere. Paying body snatchers to retrieve fresh bodies from the cemetery became surprisingly common. It happened so often that people began to bury their dead in Mortsafes – locked iron cages. It’s an interesting moral situation, needing to steal corpses to help the living.

Roach also describes some controversial experiments around head transplants, such as Vladimir Demikhov creating a two-headed dog and Robert White transplanting a monkey’s head onto another monkey’s body. The bit that got me was when she described the act of feeding the Franken-monkey as a bit of a ‘dirty trick’, since his esophagus hadn’t been attached. It’s quite creepy, but it’s also research that could contribute to human head transplants in the future. Whether that’s an ethical choice, as opposed to harvesting that body’s organs to save multiple people, is another dilemma we may someday have to consider.

Ignoring the lunch I was eating corn chowder and reading about a cadaver’s stomach contents making its way back up the esophagus during decomposition, I enjoyed reading this. It’s a good mix of creepy and interesting. I’m focusing a little on the nasty bits, but it certainly becomes obvious that cadavers are important in training our medical professionals and furthering life-saving research.

But H is different. She has made three sick people well. She has brought them extra time on earth. To be able, as a dead person, to make a gift of this magnitude is phenomenal. Most people don’t manage this sort of thing while they’re alive. Cadavers like H are the dead’s heroes.

It is astounding to me, and achingly sad, that with eighty thousand people on the waiting list for donated hearts and livers and kidneys, with sixteen a day dying there on that list, that more than half of the people in the position H’s family was in will say no, will choose to burn those organs or let them rot. We abide the surgeon’s scalpel to save our own lives, our loved ones’ lives, but not to save a stranger’s life. H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her.

If you aren’t already an organ donor, you can likely register online. If you live in British Columbia, you can register at BC Transplant. I know I’d rather save lives after death, whether directly through donation or indirectly through research, instead of wasting away in a box somewhere.

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