Book Review: Stiff

stiffThis review was first posted to my Goodreads account over here.

“What happens after you die?” is probably one of the oldest questions humanity has ever asked itself (along with “What will I eat in two hours?”). For a long time, it occupied our attention strictly in a metaphysical sense, wondering about souls and the afterlife, because we knew what happened to bodies: they decayed. Our ancestors had ample opportunity to observe this process, on everything from people to cattle to any number of wild animals. The Egyptians did their best to put a stop to it, but time marches over all things.

Our cultural distance from dead bodies has been steadily growing, though. Some cultures or faiths still sit with a departed loved one for a day or several days, in vigil, but in due time the body is buried or burned or whatever, and we don’t witness what happens in the long term. This distance has grown ever larger as our culture becomes more industrialized, more man-made, and natural processes happen ever-farther away from our eyes. In some ways, we don’t know any more than our most primitive ancestors about what happens after you die. In other ways, we know considerably less. Stiff is Mary Roach’s attempt to answer the more literal interpretation of the question of what happens after death, specifically: What happens to our bodies these days? And how is that different from what used to happen hundreds of years ago?

Well, first: everything that happens to your body is gross and disturbing. It doesn’t matter if you’re buried or cremated or donated to science or crashed in a plane or donated to a body farm. It’s gross. There is just no escaping the gross. To Mary Roach’s credit, however, she also manages to find it funny (and, even more to her credit, directs her humor primarily at herself and her reactions, and not to the defenseless corpses on the table in front of her). On the surface, then, Roach is witty and irreverent (prior to writing books, she wrote magazine articles for publications including Reader’s Digest, NY Times Magazine, GQ, and more; so fast-paced and witty is right in her wheelhouse). Underneath that, though, she has a pragmatism about death that I appreciated. The combination of humor, pragmatism, and just the sheer fascination of the subject matter makes this book engaging and interesting. And it did make me think, well, what do I want to happen with my body when I’m done with it? Its ultimate fate is inevitable, of course, but there’s also time in between my death and my decomposition that’s sort of vaguely under my control, or at least subject to my preference. And that’s…oddly reassuring, in a macabre sort of way.

Unexpectedly engrossing, too, were Roach’s profiles of the professionals who work with dead bodies every day. I mean, let’s face it: it’s a pretty poor author who can’t make an interesting, readable piece out of material learned at a body farm. But Roach also talks about the people who work at these places–the body farms and the anatomy classes and the mortuaries and airplane crash sites–and how they cope with their gruesome jobs (and not just how they cope with it, but why they enjoy it, and why their work is important). They’re a surprisingly diverse crew of people. If you donate your body to science, a quirky, learned person will be using you for…something. Mary Roach does a pretty good job of taking a subject that is profoundly uncomfortable for a lot of people and making it, if not enjoyable (the book is enjoyable, don’t get me wrong, but thinking about my death still is not), at least accessible.

This book may not be for the profoundly squeamish, but honestly, I think the humor leavens the grossness a great deal. And if it is too gross, you’ll know by chapter three, which is the body farm chapter. And it reads pretty quickly. And is more entertaining than David Sedaris’ essay about his weekend spent in a medical examiner’s office.

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