the curious life of the dead (stiff)

 

so i’ve been parallel-reading howards end and stiff. since the semester starts again today, i wanted to tell you about stiff before the madness of school catches up with me.

stiff was a spontaneous gift from a friend of a friend who noticed i was looking at it while they were practicing for an upcoming performance. i have to say that some passages made me feel a little unwell – i have a very vivid imagination, a very tangible, physical imagination, and if that is true for you too, be aware of it. at the same time, the book is not gross. it is in no way revolting or shocking. mary roach treats the subject of corpses with just enough humour, some detachment, and respect at the same time.

from: waterhouse: sleep and his half-brother death (1874)

the idea of death something like the waterhouse painting above is still quite common – it’s a common trope in movies, faerietales, and the likes. death as the brother of sleep. death as something peaceful, something unchanging and permanent, but not utterly alienating. the body is not much changed, in fact death (on the right) looks only a little stiffer, a little less relaxed than sleep (on the left). roach suggests that in the past, often people who chose to not donate their body to science or not to allow autopsies on their loved ones did so because they felt the peace of the dead would be disturbed or the memory of the decedent desecrated. she argues that the increase in people’s willingness to will their own bodies to research after death is a direct result of the increase in the general public’s understanding of the chemistry and biology of the body, especially the dead body. considering the processes of decay a dead human body goes through naturally, or when buried, letting others use the body for a common good seems more of an option. eventually, each body will cease to exist, whether it is buried, cremated, embalmed or autopsied.

while i still don’t know that i would offer my body up for research, roach’s book has given me a much better understanding of what is in store for the body after physical death. the american practice of embalming both fascinates and frightens me: it involves replacing the blood of the deceased with a formaldehyde solution. the reason this is so popular is that it gives the dead person that “alive” look – refilling some of the tissue that has inevitably collapsed or shrunk with the dehydration and other effects of physical death. with the help of some special make-up (yes it has to be special, since most of what you and i may use normally is designed to work on warm, living skin, rather than cold) and some aces up the embalmer’s sleeve [such as moisturizing creams, plastic eye caps to keep the eyes from looking sunk and collapsed, which due to dehydration they will, and then some tricks to keep the mouth from falling open], your loved one can be made to look like they were, indeed, just sleeping. as i already mentioned in my ramblings about janet frame’s daughter buffalo, the whole idea of chemically treating the dead to postpone or (as in lenin’s case) even halt for decades the process of natural decay seems a bit iffy. formaldehyde is not exactly spring water, and considering it is a proven carcinogen, allowing it to seep through into the ground and into our drinking water seems like a less than brilliant idea. i am relieved to know, now, after some reading up, that embalming is rarely done in germany. i know you’re going to say, hey, you’ll be dead, you won’t even know what happens to you, but to be honest i still don’t like the idea of strange chemicals messing with my body.

an ecologically sensible coffin, by http://www.englishwillowcoffins.co.uk/index.htm

here are some eco-friendly ways to go, if after reading this book you still decide you don’t want to serve in one of the many capacities corpses have served in over the centuries.

another eco-friendly coffin, made from recycled paper.

roach makes a good case for the important role of donated / willed corpses for research. these have allowed scientists to learn a great many things in many areas of our daily lives. yes, virtually all crash testing is done with dummies these days, but there was and is only one way to know the limits, the thresholds of the human body, how strong an impact can be before it does organic damage or breaks a bone. once these limits are established, we can work with dummies and probes and such, but we only know these limits because there were people who willed their bodies to research. much medical training, until recently, included work on corpses when available. how else could a surgeon know where and how to find or fix a certain piece of your anatomy, if s/he has never seen it in the big picture? in the past, say, the 17 to 1800s, the bodies of executed criminals were made available to scientists for these purposes, autopsy being considered an added penalty on top of death. there were not enough corpses to go around, and so a trade in bodies began – which roach describes in chapter 2, crimes of anatomy. consider this:

[Body snatching] was a new crime, distinct from grave-robbing, which involved the pilfering of jewels and heirlooms buried in tombs and crypts of the well-to-do. Being caught in possession of a corpse’s cufflinks was a crime, but being caught with the corpse itself carried no penalty. […]
Some anatomy instructors mined the timeless affinity of university students for late-night pranks by encouraging their enrollees to raid graveyards and provide bodies for the class. At certain Scottish schools, in the 1700s, the arrangement was more formal: Tuition, writes Ruth Richardson, could be paid in corpses rather than cash. (43)

the body snatchers were also called (ironically enough) resurrectionists.the situation is different now, – according to roach there is almost a surplus of donated bodies. while there is still research that needs doing, in forensics as well as in medicine and safety testing for vehicles etc, and plastic surgeons need close-to-life materials to learn and practice their procedures on, a lot has already been achieved. roach cites alert king’s calculations, in 1995, that

vehicle safety improvements that have come about as a result of cadaver research have saved an estimated 8,500 lives each year since 1987. For every cadaver that rode the crash sleds to test three-point seat belts, 61 lives per year have been saved. For every cadaver that took an air bag in the face, 147 people per year survive otherwise fatal head-ons. (92)

one touchy area is, according to roach, however in need to more willed corpses: pediatric impact studies, or any studies really, i would imagine, where the bodies of children would be needed. children do not usually will their bodies to anyone or anything. it’s not the sort of thing children worry about, and it’s not the sort of thing they should worry about. and who would want to bring up the option of body donation with grieving parents? (95)

not all the bodies researchers work with are willed or donated. sometimes, the body is all they have to solve a crime or find out the cause of an accident, a plane crash or such. there are professionals out there who have studied the types of injuries different types of accidents or assaults will create, the type of decay that occurs naturally and under various conditions, and can tell much from “just” the body at the scene of an accident or crime. (yes i know, there are lots of tv shows / series about that, right? csi this and csi that. keep in mind, as you read this blog, that i don’t even own a tv.)

medical schools are beginning to work with digitized corpses, a collection of  images of a great number of “slices” of an actual corpse, giving a (re-usable) three-dimensional image for medical students to work with and study.

overall, this book is fascinatingly interesting. it is well-written and quite readable, even for someone as squeamish as myself. i still have about half of the book ahead of me, but i would recommend it to anyone who is curious about the human – dead – body.

more to read:

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About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Cranioklepty (Grave-robbing for Profit and Pleasure) | Outside of a Cat

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