Mary Roach on “Stiff”

The curious lives of human cadavers.

Mary Roach  Stiff
Mary Roach, author of “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.”

Here's a sobering thought: Considering the state of today's economy it might be easier to find a job and become a productive member of society if you're dead. Looking at the latest unemployment figures you realize there's a lot of people sitting around not doing much of anything. Then you read “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” (W.W. Norton) and discover there's a host of cadavers out there in the world making themselves useful—fulfilling their prior commitment to help researchers pursue scientific initiatives. 

Giving new meaning to the term “dead-end job,” a cadaver might have the opportunity to be a teacher's assistant in a medical school anatomy class, help surgeons brush up on their surgical technique, or even aid in the development of crash test dummies. In some cases, remains might be utilized in three or four places at once; that individual can be really productive. Admittedly, donating your body to science isn't something you want to run out and sign up for, but you can take comfort in knowing your experience won't be mundane.

In “Stiff,” author Mary Roach explores the unlikely, remarkable and sometimes historic accomplishments of the dearly departed. Some might find her stories disquieting and occasionally repulsive, but Roach has a way of making the subject matter approachable and even laugh-out-loud funny without being disrespectful to the deceased. 

Actually, decedents are well suited to work in science and technology, two fields where physical appearance isn't particularly important and unending patience is a virtue. While dead lab assistants are most highly valued for their unmatched tolerance for pain, Roach jokes that they do get something back in exchange for their compliance, namely the chance to be “part of something . . . the center of everyone's attention.” So if your life hasn't exactly been filled with accomplishment, there's still hope for you on the other side. 

Failure recently spoke with Roach about what it's like to be, uh, a working stiff, as well as how it feels to spend an extended period of time with a corpse.

How did you get the idea for “Stiff”?

The idea grew out of a Salon.com column I used to do that covered health, the human body and the unexplored fringes of medicine. The columns about research cadavers were very popular and we were actually toying with the idea of doing something called, “The Dead Beat.” I started doing some research and then the entire section got cut when Salon went through budget cuts. But I had all this research and around that time I was talking with an agent. So it wasn't a lifelong interest of mine. I don't have family in the mortuary business and had really never given any thought to cadavers until I stumbled onto them. 

When you were researching the book how did people respond when they found out what you were doing? 

Writing a book on cadavers is a real conversation stopper. People want to be excited for you: “Oh, you're doing a book? What's it about? Cadavers?” People don't really know what to say. The book is very hard to explain because people think it sounds dark and depressing. And I say, “No, it's actually a fun book about cadavers.” Some people just don't know what to make of that. So that was my least favorite part—trying to explain the book to people while I was working on it. Now that it's out it's a little easier.

What was it like to spend so much time around dead people? 

It was surprisingly easy. Anonymous research cadavers are actually not that hard to be around, unlike the body of someone you knew or the victim of some horrible accident. Those kinds of sights are wrenching and emotional, but research cadavers are typically in the setting of a lab, they're anonymous [and] you don't get the feeling that their family is missing them. You don't have any sense of their identity. They are just part of the experiment and more objects than people. I don't mean that in a dismissive or disrespectful way but they are not people, they are the remains of a person. Also, their faces are often covered. In the anatomy lab I went to, a lot of the students left the faces covered. It makes it easier for them to cope. They are less human seeming when their faces and hands are covered. 

It sounds really strange but I don't think I'm unique in my ability to be around cadavers. I think anyone could do it. The exception was the head lab [a facial anatomy and face-lift refresher course for plastic surgeons that utilized 40 severed heads, each in its own roasting pan]. That took some getting used to. Those were not covered and you could see where they had been cut off. 

Was the severed head lab the first place you visited?

Yeah, that was the first thing I did. I was little concerned because on the plane on the way home I found myself looking around at my fellow passengers and thinking, “I know what you'd look like as just a head” [laughs]. I thought, maybe it's not so good that I'm doing this. Maybe I'm going to go insane. 

Did you have any uncomfortable encounters with cadavers? 

There was this one guy who was the body that the students at the mortuary college were practicing on. His identification card was there. Standing around looking at this guy and knowing something about his past, it made me very sad. It wasn't uncomfortable, just emotional. All the rest were so anonymous. But this guy I happened to know a little about and it just struck me as kind of sad in that way that death can be.

What's the difference between donating your organs and donating your body to science?

When you put a dot on your driver's license that's for organ donation only. Say you are in a car crash and your head hits the windshield and you're in a coma. You're brain dead but you're on a respirator so your organs are alive because you're being kept breathing. If you have the dot on your license your organs are going to get transplanted, but that doesn't mean your body is going to science.

In order to become a research cadaver you have to have filled out something called a Willed Body form for a particular university. Oftentimes it's somebody who had surgery at a medical school or medical center and it saved their life and they feel grateful and want to give back to the school. You fill out this form saying, “I hereby bequeath my body…” to [insert name] university to do whatever they want with, essentially. Then you end up at an anatomy lab or on a research project. Very often you are parceled up. Your head will go one place, your liver might go someplace else. Nothing is wasted. Everyone wants a piece of you when you're a research cadaver. 

So if you donate your body to science you have control over where you're going but not with what they end up doing with you?

That's right. You basically go to the project you would fit and where there's a need. You can put a note on your form saying, “I do not wish to be used for the following purposes.” You can specify what you don't want to be used for, but you can't specify what you want to be used for. There are some places where if you contact the facility yourself—like the Body Farm [University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Facility] has people who have contacted them and said, “I want to donate myself to the Body Farm.” Sometimes you can set stuff up on an individual basis, but it's typically not done. Usually you go where you're needed. About 80 percent [of cadavers] go to anatomy labs. 

Based on what you saw, what's the ideal job for a cadaver? 

The best position you could have as a dead person would be the skeleton in the anatomy lab. Skeletons are sort of aesthetically beautiful. They're not icky and decomposing in any way and they don't smell funny. People can look at you and think, “Wow, that's really cool.” You're still there and helping out in your dead way. I'd have to say that would be my number one pick. 

Plastination is another one. There's a lab at the University of Michigan where they plastinate organs—essentially creating a hard, preserved plastic version. It's a liver but the moisture has been replaced with this polymer that's catalyzed and then hardens. You can pick it up and it doesn't smell and it never decomposes. You can do a brain. You can even do a whole body. I think that would be my second choice. I could be happy as a spleen on a shelf. 

Is there any role a cadaver might not want to get stuck with? 

I would rather not end up in an anatomy classroom. To have all those young, fresh-faced people looking at your dilapidated body for weeks on end. You're heavily preserved as an anatomy lab specimen because you've got to last for the three or four months of the course. So you look kind of ghoulish. You don't look like yourself dead—you look a little beef jerky-ish. Not that it matters. But if I had my druthers I'd rather not be an embalmed specimen. 

In your experience, how do the living treat cadavers? 

Very respectfully. For example, at the anatomy lab at the University of California, San Francisco, I went to a memorial service that they hold for the cadavers at the end of the class. It was really touching. Students read from journals. They sang songs they had written. They performed classical music. People were crying—I was all choked up. A lot of medical schools do this and some of them even invite the families of the cadavers to come to the service. Just talking to the students they were all very conscious of what a great gift this person was making. 

About the only thing I saw that wasn't completely respectful was at the head lab where one guy picked up his head and had his photograph taken with it. That outraged a couple of the other surgeons. 

Is there any research that scientists are unwilling to do with cadavers? 

There is essentially no research done with child cadavers. There is a need for it in testing car seats, but it simply isn't done. First of all, children don't fill out Willed Body forms and nobody is going to approach a grieving parent and say, “Hey, is it okay if we use Johnny in our impact study?”

Also, no one tests weapons. You'd think the military would say, “Let's see what kind of damage this will do!” But that absolutely doesn't take place. They use ballistic gelatin—which is the same density as human tissue—to test new bullets. 

What's the biggest drawback to appearing in public after death? Is it the inability to control or change your personal appearance? 

I suppose. Looking back on what I just said about not feeling good about being naked, embalmed and disgusting in front of a bunch of college students . . . if there is a drawback when you're dead that would be it [laughs]. I guess we tend to apply the hang-ups that we have as living people to the concept of ourselves as a dead person.

In your estimation, which is more unpleasant for a dead body to endure, decay or cremation?

Cremation appeals to me because it's cleaner and quicker. The thing about decomposition is that it's so drawn out and each week it's a new set of ghastly things that are happening to you [laughs]. Even though burning up for the 10 minutes or so that it takes is horrific, at least it's over with quickly and there's no mess. 

Are there any foods that you can't eat anymore because of what you've seen? 

Campbell's chicken soup—that kind of yellow soup with the bits of meat and oil floating on top. It's because of that comment that [scientist and professor] Arpad Vass made [regarding what decomposed tissue looks like]. "It becomes like soup . . . chicken soup,” he said. So that yellow soup would always bring to mind my trip to the Body Farm. I don't eat Campbell's chicken soup much but if I were presented with it, I think I'd have a problem. 

Has anyone who has heard about or read your book been offended by it? 

My first cousin, Claire, lives in England and is quite upper class and doesn't get her hands dirty very much. I was talking with her son who said, [adopts English accent], “Yeah, my mum told me you wrote a book. She said, ‘Mary's written a book. It's disgusting.’” But offended? No one has expressed that to me yet. 

Do you plan to donate your body to science? 

I have a bit in the end of the book about that. My husband is very squeamish. He won't wear contacts because he'd have to touch his eyeballs. He has a thing about death, too. I was talking to him about the Harvard Brain Bank [Harvard Brain Tissue Research Center]. I kind of like the idea of having a wallet card that says, “I'm going to Harvard”—the Harvard Brain Bank, but it still sounds kind of appealing. I was describing how they get the brain out to them and he said, “No, I'm not doing it. I don't care what you say. If you die before me I'm not giving you to the Harvard Brain Bank.” It was a really hard couple years for Ed while I was writing this book. 

In the end, I didn't want to put him through having to imagine me being used in research because it would absolutely freak him out. But if he dies first I would donate my body to science. It's so much more interesting than being cremated. 

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