Never have my Western morals, pre-conceptions and beliefs been more challenged than when reading Stiff. No one wants to consider their own mortality aNever have my Western morals, pre-conceptions and beliefs been more challenged than when reading Stiff. No one wants to consider their own mortality and make any arrangements for the afterlives of their bodies. Being confronted with the cold hard reality of nature, science and history of death was an uncomfortable, disgusting and enlightening experience. Those of a delicate disposition and strong religious belief will find this a particularly difficult and offensive read. But honestly, they should suck it up and read it anyway, hopefully with an open mind. My views were unexpectedly changed on quite a few issues. Nothing was as clear-cut and simple as I assumed they would be.
I share Roach's feelings towards cadavers:
’Cadavers are our superheroes: They brave fire without flinching, withstand falls from tall buildings and head-on car crashes into walls. You can fire a gun at them or run a speedboat over their legs, and it will not faze them. Their heads can be removed with no deleterious effect. They can be in six places at once.’
Cadavers can be:
✺ Used to train doctors. Historically, and currently, controversial. I was surprised by how much respect is shown by students to their cadavers, and I can completely understand why they hold memorial services for them as an emotional outlet for how disturbing it is to injure and deliberately disfigure another (albeit dead) human being. Digital anatomy instruction and/or plastination (I’ll explain later) may replace the dissection of the dead.
✺ Stolen from their graves and sold to medical schools. Thousands of body-snatchers or Resurrectionists (hehe!) made a career out of it, including the infamous murderers, Burke and Hare.
✺ Sex objects, i.e. necrophilia. Self-explanatory, that, eh? *wink, wink*
✺ Used to study decay on body farms, where cadavers are placed in controlled conditions and left to decompose, returning at pre-determined intervals to examine the results, which can later be used to determine cause and time of death.
✺ Embalmed. The ultimate plastic surgery, turning the old youthful once again. Morticians actually have to paint wrinkles on the elderly so their relations can recognise them. Morticians sanitize the body, plug the orifices ("Will we be suturing the anus?") and replace the fluids with formaldehyde, a toxic preservative. Much the same is done with the language used to describe their ‘clients’. Wrinkles are ‘facial markings’, a stiff is the ‘decedent’.
✺ Used to test safety as crash test dummies, improving vehicle safety and ultimately saving lives as a result.
✺ Used to determine the cause of plane crashes. Not all wreckage is recoverable and sometimes only the dead can tell you how and why a plane crashed. This chapter was particularly interesting, detailing many facts about the aerospace industry you really don't want to know if you ever want to fly again.
✺ Used to prove or disprove Jesus's crucifixion. Forgive me, but I believe Dr. Pierre Babet was batshit crazy. To put it more mildly, fanatically religious, obsessed devoted to Catholicism, and didn't much care about the people whose limbs he was cutting off, for perhaps mild injuries, to further his quest for the ultimate, undeniable proof that Christ was wrapped in the, now defunct, Shroud of Turin in 1931. If he did indeed amputate healthy limbs, it was uncalled for. No lives were hanging in the balance. So, for once, I can, while reading this book, definitively say that I would be sickened if this was so.
✺ Used to test munitions, though it’s taboo. The purpose is to take lives in order save lives. Ballistics gelatine and animals are the more common targets. The shooting and blowing up of live pigs and other animals for the training of military doctors, is also controversial. But which would you prefer: dead soldiers and alive pigs, or alive soldiers and dead pigs? I think if you had family and friends in the armed forces you’d rather those pigs die. Honestly, I was horrified when I heard about this practice on the news and yet after reading this, I completely understand why it's necessary. If there were no guns or bombs, surgeons wouldn't need these skills in the first place.
✺ Organ donors. Beating-heart cadavers are brain-dead (i.e. legally dead). On the one hand, one person can save many lives. Alternatively, the actual process is quite upsetting. Organs are removed while the donor still has a pulse, including the heart, which is the last to be cut out, and continues to beat ominously afterwards, for a few minutes. Although gender can be discerned from an ECG by a heart surgeon as they beat slightly differently, contrary to popular belief, transplant recipients do not begin to exhibit traits of their donor’s. A wildly inaccurate myth.
✺ Used to experiment with new surgical techniques. Head transplants have been attempted, both with humans and animals. Real-life Frankenstein here, people. Both disturbing and grotesque. I’m not religious, but even I was throwing out words like ‘unnatural’ and ‘barbaric’ while reading the various experiments. Shockingly, a transplanted monkey head was responsive for a few days before it died. Yes, it’s most definitely cruel, though I took Roach’s point that if a way was found to reattach the spinal column/cord, paralysis could be a thing of the past. Still, this head will only ever know one body and will hopefully remain attached until body and brain are decomposing.
✺ Used for food, i.e. cannibalism. Alive aside, this practice generally isn’t acceptable in the West in current times, apart from the placenta. Historically, and in the East, almost every body part was ingested in the name of medicine. Chinese women used to cut off a body part and cook it for their mother-in-laws. Today, the Chinese still find aborted human foetuses a delicacy. I really want to judge them for this, but wild animals eat their dead. Nothing’s wasted. Personally, I’d be worried about kuru, the incurable degenerative neurological disorder contracted via cannibalism.
Roach details the options for your body after death:
(Click table to enlarge)
Plastination, developed by Gunther von Hagens (you may have been to one of his exhibits or seen one of his TV shows), seems rather gimmicky to me and possibly expensive, though Roach never says how much it costs. For me, the tissue digestion seems the most 'natural', but I won't be surprised if human compost becomes popular since Roach notes the interest of the general public, many investors and funeral corporations, especially in Scandinavia. However, in the final chapter, I was swayed by the argument that it should be up to those you've left behind to decide what happens to your corpse. Or at least a compromise on what you're all most comfortable with to avoid conflicting moral or religious belief. That's if you have that conversation at all. Many don't, at least not in any real detail.
But there's another possibility. Even if you choose a traditional burial, future archealogists may dig up your bones hundreds of years from now and decide to display them in museums around the world. Not much you can do about that. And as I said in the table, a number of cemeteries have been moved or built over, so "your final resting place" may not actually be your final resting place. And in a world with finite resources, including the ever-decreasing acres of land in the face of rampant population growth, showing no signs of slowing, this is the most likely scenario. Better to pick something more permanent, if you ask me, or your naked skeleton could be eyeballed by your descendants, without your permission.
Informed consent is a tricky thing. In ye olde times, doctors and students took advantage of the poor and while performing surgery on them, did a little unnecessary exploration resulting in 'gratuitous pelvic exams' and 'superfluous appendectomies'. Donated cadavers were so rare that body snatchers were more likely to steal the bodies of the poor because the rich had the money to employ thief prevention techniques. Today, people want to know what will be done to their bodies when they donate it to science, and we should have that right, but the reality is so off-putting that you won't be told. You can only specify what it can't be used for.
Roach really takes a sympathetic approach to those that work with cadavers. You can tell she had real difficulty in the first few chapters, coming to terms with her first-hand experiences with the decaying and dismantled dead. Her humour isn't particularly humorous in those moments, because she's clearly uncomfortable and doesn't quite know how to process or write about them. I sympathised. Reading it was discomfiting, being there ... I'm not sure I could've merely observed as Roach did, without running screaming or vomiting my breakfast, especially while smelling the foul stench of decay. I'm fairly certain I could never watch the removal of organs from the beating-heart cadaver. The way it's described, it's too much akin to killing someone, even though you know they're brain dead and will never wake up.
It's hard to be judgmental when the author presents a balanced view on all topics. My initial gut reaction regarding a few things was most definitely disgust and horror, but after Roach told the other side of the story, I found some tolerance and understanding beneath the abhorrence. So if you go in with an open mind, you'll be rewarded.
I urge everyone to read this book, and to seriously consider the issues therein. It may help you decide what you want to happen to your body after you die. Anything that makes a difficult decision a little easier, is a good thing.
An essential, thought-provoking and educational read....more
An entertaining and hysterical autobiographical telling of Mark's sexual adventures as a young man. I highly recommend reading this. I shall never looAn entertaining and hysterical autobiographical telling of Mark's sexual adventures as a young man. I highly recommend reading this. I shall never look at watermelons the same way again....more
After getting over the giggles and settled down to read this seriously, I found this book educational, interesting and jaw-dropping. If I'd recorded tAfter getting over the giggles and settled down to read this seriously, I found this book educational, interesting and jaw-dropping. If I'd recorded the soundtrack of me reading this it would be full of giggles, gasps, oh my gods and ewws. Anyone listening would assume I was Bonking, instead of reading about it.
Mary Roach fully immerses herself in her research, even taking part in some studies to experience the experiments for herself. I feel for her husband. Being married to her can mean finding yourself chatting to a strange man watching you having sex with your mad wife inside an MRI machine.
Her witty commentary on the history of sex research shows the people behind the white coats weren't all perverts and had a genuine scientific curiosity about sex, the most taboo subject in the world no matter time or place you live in. The negative effect this had on both their careers and their personal lives was sometimes staggering.
However, some of the experiments on animals...err...well, they were uncomfortable to read. Roach only reported on the humane ones but even those -I was questioning where the line between science and bestiality is, if there is one. I'm sorry, researchers but there was a gigantic EWW! moment involving a female primate. It was too weird.
Being female I was most interested in the female chapters than the male which tended to drag for me although penis re-attachment surgery was most...enlightening. *coughs to hide smile*
Certain statistics, anecdotes and trivia (e.g. items removed from naughty places that can't be explained without embarrassment) were spread throughout the book, many of which were in the footnotes so whatever you do, pay attention to those even if you, like some, don't particularly like Roach's writing. Her sense of humour won't be to everyone's taste, for me it's more hit than miss but I can understand why some see it as forced, trying too hard to evoke a laugh from her audience.
In an ideal world I'd want to give this to teenagers as part of their sex education. Anyone who might assume this is just some smutty perverted book just by looking at the cover, is wrong. Neither is it dry and boring, there will be no Zzzz's whilst reading this. If anything I'd warn people: You must have a strong stomach. There are graphic descriptions of surgical procedures that will have you involuntarily crossing your legs in sympathy.
So if you want to read about how men get erections, why some women orgasm and others don't then this book is for you. Have fun and try not to puke....more
I didn't like the ending. Stupid, I know. It's right there in the title. I found it so upsetting, I ran into my mother's bedroom, woke her up and huggI didn't like the ending. Stupid, I know. It's right there in the title. I found it so upsetting, I ran into my mother's bedroom, woke her up and hugged her tightly. I have been taking her for granted. She won't be around forever and I must appreciate her more now while she still has all of her faculties despite her difficulties with her mental and physical health. The next day I ran out and bought her flowers, chocolates and her favourite cheesecake as early Mother's Day gifts.
This is a collection of short autobiographical articles covering 10 years, originally written for the author's column in The Guardian. We begin with an 89-year-old independent grandmother called Clarice deciding to move from her home on the coast in Brighton to live with her 54-year-old daughter and 18-year-old granddaughter in London.
Generational gaps and culture clash / shock provide plenty of friction. Friends to compete, argue and console with are entertaining distractions. And frustrations take the form of form-filling and jobsworth bureaucracy, health issues with the associated numerous endless hospital and GP appointments, the expensive no value for money nursing homes, and the appalling attitude NHS hospital staff have towards the elderly and mentally ill. Quite a few of these things I've experienced myself with my own mother so I sympathise.
Hanson's mother is painted as an honest-to-a-fault, opinionated, food porn loving, make-do and mend scrimper and saver of money. She is sweet, brazen, stubborn and fascinated by all the sex on TV. In a word, she is lovable. I wish I'd had a grandma like her. As it is, my mother's got the honest to a fault part down. Getting her to lie is impossible. Even little white ones. "Does my bum look big in this?" "Yes, you need to lose weight." "I know! No need to tell me."
While Michele writes in a middle-aged, southern England mildly posh and slightly melodramatic and comedic way, her daughter Amy's extra long chapter towards the end is poignant and heartbreaking. Her grandmother's birthday wish for many years was to die and instead she seems to receive a new ailment. A stroke causing aphasia - a difficulty in communicating, particularly talking, was the worst. A previously animated, chatty and opinionated woman is at first reduced to silence and life became one long game of Charades, and then gradually she was able to say a few words at a time but they aren't always the right ones. Her daughter and granddaughter became excellent translators.
My mother was lucky. Her mini-strokes happened all at once, resulting in amnesia - including forgetting how to eat - and referring to herself in third person, taking months to recover.
I understood Amy's painful guilt, her inability to watch the indignities of ageing, the simple everyday activities we carry out and take for granted that become embarrassingly difficult and messy as her grandmother's body deteriorates and malfunctions.
It's amazing that Clarice lasted as long as she did, to a ripe old age of 99. Had she moved into a nursing home instead, I doubt she would've lasted 3 years let alone 10. Michele couldn't do that to her mother, didn't want the guilt or the worry that goes with letting others care for someone you love. She did everything she could to keep her mother mentally and physically active, and raising Clarice's spirits when she was depressed and longing for death.
Right now I'm doing the same. I've become concerned that my mother's mental agility is in peril. Dementia has become a concern and I've realised she has little stimulation since she fills her day with repetitive OCD activities. The jigsaw I bought was for us to do together but I suspect the number of pieces and the complexity intimidated her. Trying to get her to read new books is a nagging exercise, in fact anything and everything I try to introduce is outright rejected or reluctantly accepted but never done. This is going to be an uphill battle.
I recommend Living with Mother to everyone because not only will many of us be responsible for caring for our parents as life expectancy increases, but we are all ageing. Hanson's account informs us of what's in store for us in our futures, enabling us to decide on how we're going to cope....more