Stiff and Dead Human Bodies: Analysis of the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Published: 2021-09-15 23:05:11
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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
In Stiff, we find ourselves on a journey alongside author Mary Roach, who is showing us, the living, all of the ways the bodies of our dead can be used to benefit ourselves and society: in her words, turn one’s death into “something interesting and new, something useful…” (page 1) Though there are the more conventional ways of bodily disposal, such as burial and cremation, Roach prefers to dive into the more, shall we say, experimental methods of cadaver usage. We learn about the “Body Farm” at UT, and how they observe various stages of decay under various situations. This, in turn, helps the forensics scientists better and more quickly solve murder cases. We learn of the gruesome history of human dissection, and more importantly, we are taught of its current and less barbaric methods of using cadavers in gross anatomy labs to help surgeons learn to operate. We are also shown the experiences of human crash test dummies, and their undergoing of various simulators to ensure the automobiles of the living are of a proper safety standard. Though this topic can be quite sensitive, Roach handles it with respect and humor, using terms such as “decedent” in place of “cadaver” or “stiff”. She also uses various forms of imagery (“It’s kind of beautiful, this man’s skin with these tiny white slivers embedded just beneath its surface. It looks like expensive Japanese rice paper.” [page 65]) to allow the reader, without experience to rotting bodies, to better picture and understand what she is seeing. Overall, the main theme of this selection is that death, though it be foreboding, is not so scary- on the contrary, it can be quite useful and exciting.
One of the most interesting scenes to me personally was in chapter three, “Life After Death”. This chapter details Roach’s trip to the UT Anthropological Research Facility, where cadavers are exposed to various situational factors and observed in order to better understand the decay of human bodies for forensics scientists. This facility is “the only one in the world dedicated to the study of human decay.” (page 61) You’ll notice that I referred to it earlier as the “Body Farm”, and this entry will explain why. My father, when he was a detective at the Macon County Police Department, attended a class at WCU that was taught by the man that established the Body Farm, Dr. William M. Bass. Growing up, he would mention that he has learned about the place, but thankfully he spared me the gory details. (He did, however, get him to sign a book about it that my mother was reading, seeing as the two of them were both incredibly interested in medicine and forensics.) Reading this section of the book allowed me to finally fill in the missing pieces of the story I had known of for a good part of my life. (I even read some of the parts aloud to my father to confirm validity.) In relation to the theme, the Body Farm is another prime example of, as put by the chapter title, the life of cadavers after their death, and their incredibly important impact on society, and in this case forensics.

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