more in the occasional series: ‘what I’m reading’

And this one will probably confirm some folks in their belief that I’m a bit on the weird side. Why? Look at the title of my latest bit of bedtime reading – it’s Mary Roach’s book Stiff: the curious lives of human cadavers

I picked up a copy while I was in Wellington at a conference, on the strength of a review I’d read last year. Mind you, the blurb on the cover would have sold it to me anyway: Delightful. It will leave you feeling more cheerful about life, and calmer about life’s inevitable destination.

And this is indeed a delightful book, although I did feel at one point that I’d been given more information than I really needed about how the undertaker stops a body’s mouth from gaping open while available for viewing at the funeral parlour… The author chose to look at what happens to our bodies after death because she was looking for a new and interesting challenge in her writing career – having been to Antarctica three times as a travel writer, she felt it was time for something different. And while you might think it’s a gruesome topic, she writes about it with wit, humour, & compassion (I don’t think I could have read the book if it lacked compassion in addressing its subject).

I’ve found out about the processes and timing of decay (& the various ways that societies over the centuries have tried to avoid it – fancy being soaked in honey, anyone?), and the ways in which physicians confirm that someone is indeed dead & suitable for burial (one 18th century doctor proposed pulling the person’s tongue for at least 3 hours once the diagnosis of death was made – & even developed a machine to do the job, I suppose because they found doing it manually to be a bit tiring). But I’ve also found out about the various ways in which cadavers – whose previous ‘owners’ had willed to medicine/science once they’d died – are used in forensics, ballistics, and in prolonging or enhancing the lives of others through organ donations and medical research. And about some of the distinctly dodgy uses to which they were put in earlier days, when doctors (& others) had a less well-developed sense of what’s ethically acceptable when dealing with human remains.

And there are no photos, gory or otherwise, just the power of words to stir your imagination and enliven your curiosity. Now I want to get my hands on Mary Roach’s latest book – it’s called Bonk


Mary Roach ( 2003) Stiff: the curious lives of human cadavers. Penguin.

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