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Gee, I want to be a STIFF when I grow up!
on 19 January 2006
Perhaps author Mary Roach thought the title of her book, STIFF, too ghoulish because she immediately begins in a festive mood:
"... being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you." Carnival, Viking, and Holland America, take note.
As a corpse, you can indeed, as on last summer's voyage to the Bahamas, veg out. Or, as the narrative reveals, be an integral part of other activities. Why, I didn't realize that being dead could be so lively.
First and foremost, your cadaver could become the prize of body snatchers, and subsequently be sold to a medical school for the instruction and amusement of students. Or perhaps you aspire to become a crash test dummy, fodder for the military's munitions tests, or the subject of experiments in composting, freeze-drying or plastination. If you're unlucky enough to die in an airplane disaster of unknown cause, investigators may scrutinize your body, or its widely scattered pieces, for clues as to where in the aircraft the fuselage cracked open or the bomb exploded. Your dissected brain or heart could fuel arguments over the seat of the soul, while other body parts serve as the raw material for disease remedies. Or maybe just be eaten by cannibals. And, if you're the outdoorsy type, you can recline in a grove on a grassy hillside behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center where the various stages of human decomposition are studied and recorded.
STIFF is one of the most fascinating books I've read recently, even after taking into account the "yuk" factor. (In ancient Rome, the blood of freshly slaughtered gladiators was thought to cure epilepsy, while modern day Web sites have recipes for Placenta Lasagna and Placenta Pizza for those who would consume the delicacy to stave off postpartum depression.) This is largely due to the author's chatty style and marvelous sense of humor, which is dry as a mummy. For example, when declaring the existence of a Central Park statue of a certain Dr. Sims, otherwise notable for describing a suitable patient position for gynecological exam, Roach writes in a footnote:
"If you don't believe me, you can look it up yourself, on page 56 of THE ROMANCE OF PROCTOLOGY. (Sims was apparently something of a dilettante when it came to bodily orifices.) P.S.: I could not, from cursory skimming, ascertain what the romance was."
I highly recommend STIFF for the not too squeamish adult, or as a scary Halloween gift for one who is. Or as a bedtime reader for precocious youngsters - they'll think it gross, but way cool, as children are wont to do.
In case you're wondering, there's no photo section.
Note: This is my unedited review.