Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads

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#StevesLibrary: Stiff

Something that has always intrigued me is the human body, especially the internal structure and what happens after we die. I know this is slightly morbid, but it’s just one of those things that is rarely spoken about – perhaps as it’s seen as taboo. However, as someone with an inquisitive mind, I’m always on the lookout for books that help to fill the gaps in my knowledge, as well as answering some of the questions I’ve often pondered. Stiff by Mary Roach is one of these. For those of you that aren’t aware of the book, it blows the lid off of the taboo of cadavers and investigates what happens to people’s bodies when they die. To me, this is a profound topic, but Roach manages to cover it in such a delicate but entertaining way, that you forget that you’re reading about something so sensitive. I understand that the topic isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you want to read an interesting and insightful book that’s out of your comfort zone, then this has to be it.

Who knew that cadavers were used to help train plastic surgeons, or that anatomy labs are increasingly moving away from the use of human cadavers to help train their students (at least at the time of writing)? Whilst the topic may be morbid, Roach investigates things with the gentle touch needed when speaking about the dead. One poignant moment that really stuck with me is that there is going to be a time when all of us stop being a person and become a cadaver. Whilst they may resemble us, they won’t have any of our feelings or emotions. They will no longer be a true representation of the people we were, merely a shell of our former being. Other than this mild existential crisis, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Stiff, despite the fact that I feel that some aspects of human burial (such as an eco-friendly burial), have moved on a bit since the first publication of the book. It’s interesting how they were once seen as controversial but now we see them as a viable alternative to cremation or the traditional burial.

There is also a in depth look at the historical aspects of human burial, the studies of cadavers and even body snatchers. In some cases, the story of human cadavers is dark and full of mystery around every corner. One of the main things that Stiff did for me, was enlightening me on the wide range of uses of human cadavers in scientific research. I intend one day to leave my organs for use to extend someone else’s life, with the rest of my body being donated to science. Through the lens that Stiff provides, it is easy to see where my body parts may end up and what they’ll be used for. I know this is a thought that not many people ponder on a regular basis, but after reading this book I’m feeling slightly better about death, when that day eventually comes. Roach manages to squeeze a few jokes in as well, which makes this a very accessible read to anyone. My only thought it that there are some areas that could have been expanded upon or explored in more depth, but this is looking at them through a modern lens – perhaps that information wasn’t available back in 2003.

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