I think that almost everyone, at some point or other in their lives, worries about dying. That is, I think, a valid concern. Sooner or later it's gonna happen to all of us, unless some sort of new technology develops after this book review is written. We will all die and we will all remember someone whom we have known while alive but who is now dead. Just thinking about it is enough to keep me up at night. It's enough to drive me into a stupor. It's enough to make me sit in the middle of a darkened room in my boxers and a stained, unwashed t-shirt, arms wrapped around my knees, rocking back and forth and trembling and obsessing about death with only the presence of a cold bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and bottle of Jim Beam next to me for comfort. Dying is not pleasant and it's enough to drive a person batty.
Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
is less about dying than it is about being dead
, a noteworthy distinction. Or perhaps the state of being rendered physically inert
(my words) is more accurate, since the word "dead" carries with it all sorts of philosophical and religious connotations. This is about what happens to people after they have been rendered physically inert, and I'm betting that if you are the average Joe or Josephine ninety-percent of the stuff in this book will blow your mind. I generally consider myself to be of a rather morbid temperament, yet most of the things in this book had my jaw dropped in fascination. Medical research, environmental concerns regarding the disposal of the dead, cannibalism
(yes, cannibalism), goes into it all (or as much into it as anyone would want to know, I'd hope). If you like to garden, as I do, you will never look at a compost heap the same way again.
This is all pretty difficult stuff, but Roach is hilarious. And I don't mean "oh, she's hilarious" with a smile and a throwaway gesture of the hand. No, she is fucking funny
(there you go, you made me curse). I made a point not to be drinking any soda pop while reading because it would have ended up exiting via my nasal passages. Amazingly, her humor never fails to give the proper respect that the subject matter requires. Roach's hilarity comes from her matter-of-fact approach to death, the realization that this is a difficult topic and a bit of tactless innocence that makes absorbing this whole nasty affair a good deal more reasonable. The material was endlessly fascinating, never dry, always respectful and never morbid. Particularly, Roach emphasizes the role that cadavers play in scientific research. Roach gives these unsung heroes, these Unknown Soldiers of science their proper dues in her own irreverent way.
To me, on a personal level, Stiff
had a lot of value. I remember lying awake at night as a kid, scared to death about the death of my parents. There was no reason for this. No one was sick. No impending doom. I just knew that it was going to happen and didn't like it one bit. Amazingly, I grew up to be well (or well-enough) adjusted. But now I'm older and I've been through my dad's passing. I know Old Man Death will be around again, sooner or later for the rest of us. If I can get through it with as much humor and good-nature as Mary Roach does then death, and even dying, won't be so bad.
And the "afterlife" is going to be a hoot.