Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Let’s Talk About Dead Bodies

Disclaimer: I sort of freaked myself out by trying to hard to make this a meaningful post. Please help me me make this discussion better by commenting!

So... this month was Samalama DingDong's choice and she chose "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers" by Mary Roach. When she told me about it I was initially so excited! I ran to my nearest bookstore and picked it up. It hooked me right in the beginning.

"Being dead is absurd. It's the silliest situation you'll find yourself in. Your limbs are floppy and uncooperative. Your mouth hangs open. Being dead is unsightly and stinky and embarrassing, and there's not a damn thing to be done about it." (In the introduction) And then on the next page: "One's own dead are more than cadavers; they are place holders for the living. They are a focus, a receptacle, for emotions that no longer have one. The dead of science are always strangers."

I love how the author can go from sarcastic, witty and funny to heartfelt. It isn't something I would have thought possible on this subject. And yet she does it beautifully. I really think this book is worth discussing for so many reasons. Each of her chapters are so educational, interesting, and thought provoking. There is a lot more to being a cadaver than I thought. And I just don’t mean the donated body.

Personally I am a registered donor, on the bone marrow registry, and a regular blood donor. I love the idea of being able to bless those in need in any way I can. And yet with all that, I still am unsure about my position on donating your body to science, and some of its uses. And I guess that relates to my faith and my thoughts on our physical bodies, and how they are a gift from God that we are responsible to take care of while we are here. Now that is as far as I will go with my faith, because this shouldn't be a religious discussion, but I can’t seem to totally disconnect my faith with my logical brain… they seem to be intertwined. But I can say this… I think it is our duty as a human race to help where and when we can, and it any way we can. Ms. Roach makes me laugh when she said:

“I’m a believer in organ and tissue (bone, cartilage, skin) donation, but was startled to learn that donated skin that isn’t used for, say, grafting onto burn victims may be processed and used cosmetically to plump up wrinkles and aggrandize penises. While I have no preconceived notions on the hereafter, I stand firm in my conviction that it should not take the form of someone else’s underpants.” P.24

Okay so now I’ll jump of that podium for a second and just get back to how much I enjoyed that way Ms. Roach approached this subject, and the way she wrote about it. You can tell she has a respect for the subject and those involved, but she also added humor so the book wasn’t too heavy. I think my favorite portion of her writing was when she was talking about donor H.

“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 of 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 strangers life. H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her.” P.195

It must have been so very powerful to watch this persons vital organs cut out and distributed for individuals miles away from one another. To know that through this sadness to H’s family, there can be joy and hope. In a small way she still lives on.

Now I will just share a few of my favorite quotes that either had me thinking, or laughing, or both:

* “The human being of centuries past was clearly in another league, insofar as pain endurance went. The further back you go, the more we could take. P.29

*“We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.” P.84

*“The distance between the very old, sick, frail person and the dead one is short, with a poorly marked border. The more time you spend with the invalid elderly (I have seen both my parents in this state), the more you come to see extreme old age as a gradual easing into death.” Pp. 97-98

*“A male heart is in fact slightly different from a female heart. A heart surgeon can tell one from the other by looking at the ECG, because the intervals are slightly different. When you put a female heart into a man, it continues to beat like a female heart. And vice versa.” P.192

*“If you could at all help it, it was extremely advisable, historically, to avoid being epileptic. Treatments for it have included distilled human skull, dried human heart, bolus of human mummy, boy’s urine, excrement of mouse, goose, and horse, warm gladiator blood, arsenic, strychnine, cod liver oil, and borax.” P.226

*“While I am thankful to be alive in the era of antibiotics and over-the-counter Gyne-Lotrimin, I am saddened by modern medicine’s contributions to medical nomenclature. Where once we had scrofula and dropsy, now we have supraventricular tachyarrhythmia and glossopharyngeal neuralgia. Gone are quinsy, glanders, and farcy. So long exuberant granulations and cerebral softening. Fare-thee-well, tetter and hectic fever. Even the treatments used to have evocative, literary flavor. The Merck Manual of 1899 listed ‘a tumbleful of Carlsbad waters, sipped hot while dressing’ as a remedy for constipation and the lovely, if enigmatic, ‘removal inland’ as a cure for insomnia.” P.226

*“’Do not spit at the beach.’ Unless, I thought to myself, the beach suffers from nightmares, ulcers, ophthalmia, or fetid perspiration.” P.244

I am so glad that Samalama chose this book. I doubt I would have found it on my own, and I love the differing tastes of those in our book club! I hope everyone else enjoyed it and that we can have a good discussion!


  1. On a side note I reall also liked her final chapter. I can't get her thoughts out of my head regarding those who have passed beyond, and what to do with the remains of that loved one:

    “People who make elaborate requests concerning disposition of their bodies are probably people who have trouble with the concept of not existing.” P.290

    “’It’s none of their business what happens to them when they die’ he [funeral director Kevin McCabe] said to me. While I wouldn’t go that far, I do understand what he is getting at: that the survivors shouldn’t have to do something they’re uncomfortable with or ethically opposed to.” P.290

    Now I don't agree with her thoughts that those individuals cease to exist, but I do wonder how family members deal with requests that are truly uncomfortable for them. It really was thought provoking and made me wonder if I truly could follow my parents requests for cremation.

  2. I don't know what to add. I really enjoyed the book and am really grateful to have read since I don't think I would have found it on my own either. I too enjoyed the author's unusual voice. I felt like I learned a lot and would be well prepared for a game show on Cadavers. There were so many interesting quotes and information. I really liked it and now have a new reason not to like rice.

  3. I am intrigued by the rice comment!
    This is a subject that I don't want to look into right now, but I've found the comments really interesting. I especially liked the comment about the heart of a man and a woman.
    Clearly this is an important book, and I hope that it convinces many more people to be organ donors.

  4. I really enjoyed the book, but think you have to be in the right mind to read it because the subject material can be a bit disturbing.

    The rice comment came because the author commented on how maggots look like cooked rice. And Ella doesn't like rice so she now thinks she can use it as an excuse to continue hating rice.

    1. Because I loathe maggots. They are disgusting! I can't even see them on TV without getting green in the face.

  5. I loathe maggots too! Bye bye rice! I haven't been able to eat prawns since someone called them the maggots of the sea.

    1. That is not something I should hear since I love shrimp!