This book has been on my reading list for a while, I'm fairly certain I saw a copy of it at Powells. I hadn't read anything by Roach before this book, but had heard many squeals of delight from friends when I mentioned I had started (and now finished this book). I now understand why. Roach's writing is engaging, amusing, and enlightening. If you have to learn, being entertained while you learn is the best way to go.
In this book, Roach explores dead bodies, seemingly on a quest to determine what she wants done with her body after she passes. Seemingly because it's a good lead, true or not.
I enjoyed this book far more than I suspect most Americans would or do. American has this pathological obsession with youth, to the point of denying that death even exists, hiding it from everyone until, for the most part, old age, at which point most of us are like, WTF? Most, not all, and I'm grateful for those, like Caitlin Doughty who do talk about death, and dying, and the corpses we leave, because we all leave them.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and strongly recommend it. I'd likely buy you a copy if you wanted one and your library didn't have one to borrow.
Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.
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.*
Let me tell you about my first cadaver. I was thirty-six, and it was eighty-one. It was my mother’s. I notice here that I used the possessive “my mother’s,” as if to say the cadaver that belonged to my mother, not the cadaver that was my mother. My mom was never a cadaver; no person ever is. You are a person and then you cease to be a person, and a cadaver takes your place. My mother was gone. The cadaver was her hull.
Often when I checked out a book I expected to be questioned. Why do you want this book? What are you up to? What kind of person are you? They never asked, so I never told them. But I’ll tell you now. I’m a curious person. Like all journalists, I’m a voyeur. I write about what I find fascinating.
It was Theresa who brought the heads in and set them up on their little stands. I ask her about this.
“What I do is, I think of them as wax.” Theresa is practicing a time-honored coping method: objectification. For those who must deal with human corpses regularly, it is easier (and, I suppose, more accurate) to think of them as objects, not people. For most physicians, objectification is mastered their first year of medical school, in the gross anatomy lab, or “gross lab,” as it is casually and somewhat aptly known.
The problem with cadavers is that they look so much like people. It’s the reason most of us prefer a pork chop to a slice of whole suckling pig. It’s the reason we say “pork” and “beef” instead of “pig” and “cow.” Dissection and surgical instruction, like meat-eating, require a carefully maintained set of illusions and denial.
Humor—at the cadaver’s expense—was tolerated, condoned even. “There was a time not all that long ago,” says Art Dalley, director of the Medical Anatomy Program at Vanderbilt University, “when students were taught to be insensitive, as a coping mechanism.”
The gains in the average person’s understanding of biology have, I imagine, worked to dissolve the romance of death and burial—the lingering notion of the cadaver as some beatific being in an otherworldly realm of satin and chorale music, the well-groomed almost-human who simply likes to sleep a lot, underground, in his clothing.
The bacteria in our gut break those proteins down into amino acids; they take up where we leave off. When we die, they stop feeding on what we’ve eaten and begin feeding on us. And, just as they do when we’re alive, they produce gas in the process. Intestinal gas is a waste product of bacteria metabolism. The difference is that when we’re alive, we expel that gas. The dead, lacking workable stomach muscles and sphincters and bedmates to annoy, do not. Cannot. So the gas builds up and the belly bloats. I ask Arpad why the gas wouldn’t just get forced out eventually. He explains that the small intestine has pretty much collapsed and sealed itself off. Or that there might be “something” blocking its egress. Though he allows, with some prodding, that a little bad air often does, in fact, slip out, and so, as a matter of record, it can be said that dead people fart. It needn’t be, but it can.
There is a passage in the Buddhist Sutra on Mindfulness called the Nine Cemetery Contemplations. Apprentice monks are instructed to meditate on a series of decomposing bodies in the charnel ground, starting with a body “swollen and blue and festering,” progressing to one “being eaten by… different kinds of worms,” and moving on to a skeleton, “without flesh and blood, held together by the tendons.” The monks were told to keep meditating until they were calm and a smile appeared on their faces. I describe this to Arpad and Ron, explaining that the idea is to come to peace with the transient nature of our bodily existence, to overcome the revulsion and fear. Or something.
“The skin isn’t able to heal, so you have to be really careful about nicks. One shave per razor, and then you throw it away.” I wonder whether the man, in his dying days, ever stood before a mirror, razor in hand, wondering if it might be his last shave, unaware of the actual last shave that fate had arranged for him.
As a feature of the common man’s funeral, the open casket is a relatively recent development: around 150 years. According to Mack, it serves several purposes, aside from providing what undertakers call “the memory picture.” It reassures the family that, one, their loved one is unequivocally dead and not about to be buried alive, and, two, that the body in the casket is indeed their loved one, and not the stiff from the container beside his.
Life contains these things: leakage and wickage and discharge, pus and snot and slime and gleet. 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.
A dummy can tell you how much force a crash is unleashing on various dummy body parts, but without knowing how much of a blow a real body part can take, the information is useless. You first need to know, for instance, that the maximum amount a rib cage can compress without damaging the soft, wet things inside it is 2 ¾ inches. Then, should a dummy slam into a steering wheel of a newly designed car and register a chest deflection of four inches, you know the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) isn’t going to be very happy with that car.
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. The old and the dying sleep more and more, until one day they “sleep” all the time. They often become more and more immobile until one day they can do no more than lie or sit however the last person positioned them.
I find the dead easier to be around than the dying. They are not in pain, not afraid of death. There are no awkward silences and conversations that dance around the obvious. They aren’t scary. The half hour I spent with my mother as a dead person was easier by far than the many hours I spent with her as a live person dying and in pain.
The British investigators know what butchers have long known: If you want people to feel comfortable about dead bodies, cut them into pieces. A cow carcass is upsetting; a brisket is dinner. A human leg has no face, no eyes, no hands that once held babies or stroked a lover’s cheek. It’s difficult to associate it with the living person from which it came. The anonymity of body parts facilitates the necessary dissociations of cadaveric research: This is not a person. This is just tissue. It has no feelings, and no one has feelings for it.
For Shanahan, the hardest thing about Flight 800 was that most of the bodies were relatively whole. “Intactness bothers me much more than the lack of it,” he says. The sorts of things most of us can’t imagine seeing or coping with—severed hands, legs, scraps of flesh—Shanahan is more comfortable with. “That way, it’s just tissue. You can put yourself in that frame of mind and get on with your job.” It’s gory, but not sad. Gore you get used to. Shattered lives you don’t.
A falling human stops short when it hits the surface of the water, but its organs keep traveling for a fraction of a second longer, until they hit the wall of the body cavity, which by that point has started to rebound. The aorta often ruptures because part of it is fixed to the body cavity—and thus stops at the same time—while the other part, the part closest to the heart, hangs free and stops slightly later; the two parts wind up traveling in opposite directions and the resultant shear forces cause the vessel to snap.
What Snyder found is that a person’s speed at impact doesn’t dependably predict the severity of his or her injuries.
Shanahan cites the example of a Delta crash in Dallas. “It should have been very survivable. There were very few traumatic injuries. But a lot of people were killed by the fire. They found them stacked up at the emergency exits. Couldn’t get them open.” Fire is the number one killer in airplane mishaps. It doesn’t take much of an impact to explode a fuel tank and set a plane on fire. Passengers die from inhaling searing-hot air and from toxic fumes released by burning upholstery or insulation. They die because their legs are broken from slamming into the seat in front of them and they can’t crawl to the exits. They die because passengers don’t exit flaming planes in an orderly manner; they stampede and elbow and trample.*
He says it’s mostly common sense. Sit near an emergency exit. Get down low, below the heat and smoke. Hold your breath as long as you can, so you don’t cook your lungs and inhale poisonous fumes. Shanahan prefers window seats because people seated on the aisle are more likely to get beaned with the suitcases that can come crashing through the overhead bin doors in even a fairly mild impact.
Given his choice of anywhere on the plane, where does he prefer to sit? “First class.”
Kocher urged that the goal of warfare be to render the enemy not dead, but simply unable to fight.
If someone cares to think it through, it isn’t hard to come to the conclusion that someone in a lab coat will, at the very least, be cutting your eyeball out of your head. But most people don’t care to think it through. They focus on the end, rather than the means: Someone’s vision may one day be saved.
On a rational level, most people are comfortable with the concept of brain death and organ donation. But on an emotional level, they may have a harder time accepting it, particularly when they are being asked to accept it by a transplant counselor who would like them to okay the removal of a family member’s beating heart. Fifty-four percent of families asked refuse consent. “They can’t deal with the fear, however irrational, that the true end of their loved one will come when the heart is removed,” says Oz. That they, in effect, will have killed him.
The trouble with human subjects is that no one wants to go first. No one wants to be a practice head.
White doesn’t think the United States will be the likely site of the first human head transplant, owing to the amount of bureaucracy and institutional resistance faced by inventors of radical new procedures. “You’re dealing with an operation that is totally revolutionary. People can’t make up their minds whether it’s a total body transplant or a head transplant, a brain or even a soul transplant.
Under the bland and benign-sounding heading “Medical Treatment for Loved Ones,” Chong describes a rather gruesome historical phenomenon wherein children, most often daughters-in-law, were obliged to demonstrate filial piety to ailing parents, most often mothers-in-law, by hacking off a piece of themselves and preparing it as a restorative elixir.
Anthropologists will tell you that the reason people never dined regularly on other people is economics. While there existed, I am told, cultures in Central America that actually ranched humans—kept enemy soldiers captive for a while to fatten them up—it was not practical to do so, because you had to give up more food to feed them than you’d gain in the end by eating them. Carnivores and omnivores, in other words, make lousy livestock.
of Stephen Prothero’s Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America.
“Death is a possibility for new life. The body becomes something else. I would like that that something else be as positive as possible.”