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The Book “Stiff” by Mary Roach Essay

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Updated: Mar 8th, 2022

The book titled “Stiff” Mary Roach represents life after death in a very provocative and unusual manner that will seem strange not only for students of anatomy courses but for ordinary people as well. The sensation made by this book is in the alternative perception of the life after death people have which contradicts the usual idea of what happens to us that used to dominate in the minds of the common public. Her vision of life after death is shockingly trivial and practical for the majority of people who think about death in an elevated, special way.

Speaking about death and handling dead bodies has always been an uneasy task to handle – as we see from the beginning of the book, Mary Roach tries to thoroughly investigate the way surgeons get their plastic surgery training on heads of cadavers and feel awkward about this. However, many of them have found their way out of the horror they feel when they realize these heads used to be on someone’s shoulders not long ago and used to be human beings. Some surgeons think about the heads as made of wax (Roach 21), others perceive it as rubber (Roach 23).

At the very start of her investigation, Roach notices the way people go through denial and illusions, comparing people with cows and pigs – she argues that dissection and simply cutting the cadavers to pieces helps people not think about their training material as former humans (Roach 21). This fact is explained by the usual fear of death – all those who practice on the cadavers unconsciously realize that they will also die one day, and no one knows what will happen further. Most people are afraid of death, so they prefer to deny everything they do not like.

For the reason of mystical power, the thoughts about death take over people they try not to discuss the matter as it is, which surprises Roach and makes her turn to surgeons asking provocative questions like who cuts off heads, etc.

The Swedish entrepreneur who initiated the “human compost movement” raises much curiosity in Roach (Roach 261). She is guided by the Compost Bill to investigate the propriety of human bodies used for the source of compost. Thus, she concludes that the idea itself is good if everyone again forgets from what the compost is made – the bodies are not needed by their former owners anyway because they are helplessly dead. But what will people think of the fruit and vegetables they will eat knowing that they grew on the human remains? This issue concerns pure ethics and morality, so the plan is likely to fail and find a huge number of protestors.

Logically, it is possible to suppose that humans are likely to wish to control what happens to them after their death – most regular people want to be buried traditionally and find their peace under the ground or in ashes. But others may wish to make their contribution to world science, and they include their bodies in their will to be passed to medical institutions. Here comes the question of whether they know for sure what their body will be used for – and the answer the employee of the hospital where Roach started her investigation is fascinating:

“I think there’s a surprising number of donors who don’t care what happens to them,” Dalley told me. “To them, it’s just a practical means of disposing of a body, a practical means that fortunately has a ring of altruism” (Roach 24).

Thus, it becomes clear that even those who try to control the destiny of their bodies often fail to predict for which purposes they will be used. People who want to die in a normal way and rest in peace rarely become involved in some strange manipulations with their bodies, but still, there is no guarantee that they will never be touched. The main question to be solved this way is to understand whether human bodies can finally be considered as former human beings, or they should be treated as human flesh only. Once mankind comes to this conclusion and gets rid of the prejudices, or, on the contrary, strengthens them, the question will be solved.

Closing questions. I cannot say for sure whether the book added to my anatomic education or not because the anatomic facts enlisted in the book are familiar to me. But I liked the book because it gives an alternative view of anatomy and the most delicate topic ever discussed – death and dealing with cadavers. Thus, I would surely advise reading this book to all anatomy students as they are future doctors who will have to deal with ethical dilemmas like these every day, and they have to adopt a strong viewpoint on each of them already now.

Works Cited

Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2003.

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