Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Posted by barb on Jun 2, 2004 in Books |

by Mary Roach

Roach takes what could be a morbid topic and turns it into an always fascinating, sometimes light-hearted but never irreverent book. Her style was easy with a pinch of humor (presumably out of necessity).

The book covers topics from the mundane (cadavers used for gross anatomy classes) to the gross (the “body farm” behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center used to study how bodies decay to improve foresic science) to the bizarre (experiments transplanting living puppies’ heads onto an adult dog as a pathway to eventually transplant a human head onto another body).

She covers things that I had never dreamed of, though should have been obvious. For example, the need to use cadavers to design crash-test dummies that are able to simulate how a real human body reacts to the trauma of a car wreck. She also covers the ethics of using cadavers to design better weapons (not acceptable) and to design test dummies to test bullet-proof jackets (less clear, though there is an unwritten code against firing bullets into a human cadaver, even to improve live-saving devices like bullet-proof jackets). There is a chapter on how bodies recovered from a plane crash can help reveal the cause of the malfunction when the black box is not found and not enough of the plane wreckage can be retrieved from the site.

The weirdest thing in the book, in my humble opinion, is the Swedish scientist who is developing a technique to turn human bodies into composte. The idea is to dispose of the body in a more environmentally-friendly way, without wasting valuable space. The compost can be used to plant a memorial tree with the organic material as fertilizer. While weird, I really like the idea, and hope that it catches on.

Excellent book; highly recommended.

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