Stiff – The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach


Cadaver – a dead body, esp. a human body to be dissected; corpse.

When I was studying at NUS, an ex-classmate of mine, then a dentistry student, took my friend and I on a tour to the Medicine Faculty. There was a lab where they had stored deformed aborted fetus in glass containers – one with one one eye in the centre of the face – as well as preserved organs. Then he took us to a room and showed us cadavers imported from India. He said they were mostly destitutes. They were all covered in white sheets with only their feet visible.  
Did we want to have a look?
eek…we shrieked in horror, of course not.
This book explains what happens to the body when one dies. (Not to be confused with her other book Spook which talks about the after life – the soul rather than the body.)
I learn that when I die, there are a few things I (or my family) can do with my body. They can bury me, cremate me, donate me as a cadaver to medical research, or send me to Sweden to be made into a compost (still not yet accepted in 2003 when the book was published) to be ecological friendly, or disintegrate me by dissolving me (or my body) in lye and then flushed into the sewage.
She describes in detail what happens when a body rots in burial, that is, provided you are sure you are dead and not just buried alive. In olden times, there are ways to test it, and it all involved unspeakable pain, as can be expected – sole of feet sliced with razors, needles jammed beneath toenails, nipple pincher, thrusting a sharp pencil up the cadaver’s nose, etc. 
Back to rotting. Maggots start forming from all the points of entry like the ears, eyes, navels, urethra, etc. Bacteria in the gut starts to eat away the internal and resulting in bloating, until gradually the cavity explodes. Putrefaction refers to the breaking down and gradual liquefaction of tissue by bacteria. Simply, we just turn to liquid after all the rotting is done.
Cremation is tidier and you can read in detail about it. (The hair and skin at once scorch, char and burn….) However, if you have mercury filling in your teeth, it is not ecologically green, as this is one source of contributing to atmospheric mercury.
Dissolving the body in lye and then flushing down the sewage is cleaner but may not be acceptable due to the dignity of the idea of treating the deceased as sewage.
Then, there is the compost. To do that, the body has to be grounded into small chunks and then raked to aerate it. The grinding process may sound horrific but otherwise it is not feasible to keep turning the body to aerate it for compost.
“The body has to be unrecognisable while it composts. It has to be in small pieces. Can you imagine the family sitting around the dinner table and someone says, ‘Okay, Sven,  it’s your turn to go out and turn Mother?'” I can just imagine myself stuffed into the compost bin in my back garden and Andreas telling Aaron to do just that – go turn mommy!
 
I kind of like the idea of donating my body for research. Just so you know, you have no choice as to what they do to you. Your head may be decapitated for a plastic surgeon to practise his face lifting skills, or you may end up as a crash dummy for a plane/car simultated accident, instead of some other heroic research to cure diseases as you had hoped. Worse, you may end up in some army lab as a target for testing bullets.
I’m lucky to be born now rather than in the uncivilized age where cadavers are eaten or parts of it made into medicine. Spits, ear-wax, urine, faeces (of humans and animals) and other gross excretas (dirt from behind the knees) were highly valued (especially in China) for their medicinal properties.
As with all the other Mary Roach’s books, this book is funny. Dying, while sad, is different from death itself. I had intitally expected to be cremated upon death and then being scattered in the sea. Now however, i have a new perspective: if upon death, i can contribute to Science which I am not able to while alive, donating my cadaver is the least i can do. I wonder if NUS would accept me?
 
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About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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