Stiff by Mary Roach
(a medical non-fiction that reads like fiction)
I've been reading Stiff, and I find myself thinking so often about the Buddhist practice of renunciation that sends monks to the cemetery. I have heard that they will sit in front of rotting corpses with the idea that they will fully let go to attachment to this life. The first chapter in Stiff is about the anatomists. The history of cadaver use for teaching medicine is theatrical and sordid. For a long time doctors-to-be were encouraged to objectify the bodies, do what it takes to make it less human. Some corpse providers learned it could be lucrative to murder to provide fresh cadavers. The purchaser must have had a clue, and he didn't care. I mull over that juxtaposition. Someone who is so dedicated to furthering the medical science that he accepts cadavers of questionable origin. The surgical theater in teaching schools was often the only way the poor could get medical help. No matter that inept students could kill them, it was of little importance. Perhaps it is good to remember, if thinking how horrific the state of the world is, that once upon a time anatomists did vivisection on people and thought nothing of it.
I finished the book in time for the library book group. Several people reported not being able to finish because they couldn't follow their usual pattern of reading while eating. Many just found it too disturbing to finish, and only a few appreciated the oft-lauded humor in the book. "Too breezy," some said. The doctor in our group just loved it, and thought it tremendously funny.
The author did indeed mention the Buddhist practice of contemplating decaying bodies. She shared that information with two contacts at the field of bodies, a study of body decay for forensics use. They had no comment. She did not mention the Tibetan practice of sky burial. Also covered, plastination. Coming soon to OMSI. One of the book-groupers has seen an exhibit, she said the bodies looked plastic.
I liked the book, though I had to put it down for a few days, and felt a bit raw when done. I felt very sad at the end, after learning of the way I would like to be buried, but realizing this is not likely to be available. In fact the usual methods in the U.S. are atrociously unecological. I learned cremation uses a lot of natural gas, and sends toxins into the air. I learned embalming doesn't really preserve you for eternity...not that I want to be. Getting sealed in a casket removes me from the natural decaying process. I liked the idea of a natural burial, something I came across in Six Feet Under, but that is also not likely to be available. Laws and such.
I find it very appealing to remain part of the cycle of life. In Sweden, it is possible to be freeze-dried, and the dry powder remains can be mulch for a deep-rooted plant. That is so appealing: from death comes new life, a tree to remember me. The way Mary Roach told it, funeral directors even in Sweden seemed reluctant to embrace the process. I couldn't understand that. My family is big on memorial trees. They started with the death of my brother over 20 years ago. Now they will point at a tree in their quarter-acre yard and say, "That's the tree for your grandpa. That's the tree for Uncle Ken..." They have a wooded grove where there once was a sledding hill. What a simple step it would be to have a tree growing on the grave of the composting remains of a loved one. Remember the remains from the old Star Trek series? I vaguely recall a white powder, the elements left after all the water was removed. That could be me.
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Stiff by Mary Roach