And no, I do not mean an open grave. The more we hurtle towards impending doom- pandemics! global warming! world war!- the more solace I seek in, well, death. I didn’t set out on the morbid marathon on purpose, but here I am! It was not my intention to get down and dirty (ha!) with death this year, but I am enjoying the ride. I have been a long-time fan of Mary Roach since Spook, but for some reason I forgot to start at the beginning of her repertoire with Stiff. I really love her style; she’s brusque, funny, and irreverent. She, like the many that she has inspired since the publication of Stiff, makes unimaginable both familiar and inviting. What are we going to do with our bodies when we die? They’re mostly just lying around now, but they could be so much more!
Since it took me years and years to get to this book, it was fun to see (hear, really. I frequently turn to audio books for my narrative nonfiction) many pieces in Stiff that I had already picked up in more recent publications: Stiff features talk of the hunt for the soul which I originally heard from her in ’05’s Spook -want to set yourself up for some weird nightmares? Listen to Spook while you drive the dark abandoned interstate from Louisiana to Virginia. There was also a good deal of medicinal people-eating that popped up in The Royal art of Poison. I am both disappointing in myself and impressed by my ability to listen to talk of turning skulls into drinkable potion and then think “gahhh why am I so hungry” before toasting up a bagel and absolutely slathering it in butter and cream cheese.
This book was originally published in 2003, and while many things have remained the same (and many other things listed within have improved) there are a few scary pieces that carry a new resonance here in 2020. Mehmet Oz, then a revered name in cardiothorasic surgery, is now TV’s “Dr. Oz”, a man that spends his time on twitter beefing with celebrities over eating breakfast and broadly promoting pseudoscience. There is a chapter built around plane crashes, and several jabs at Boeing’s power over the FAA and their refusal to practice safer (but more expensive) procedures and protocols is much more grim now that we have seen Boeing fail to train and update properly, killing two planeloads of people in the last year.
Much like Caitlin Doughty before (and Roach predates her work, but not in my chronological order of reading) and I am not facing the question of: what should I do with my body when I die? I am still dead-set on escaping the embalmer, but maybe now I am on board with being launched into space. I am totally cool with science using my body to “I dunno, see what happens, man”. After all, as Roach puts it:
“The point is that no matter what you choose to do with your body when you die, it won’t, ultimately, be very appealing. If you are inclined to donate yourself to science, you should not let images of dissection or dismemberment put you off. They are no more or less gruesome, in my opinion, than ordinary decay or the sewing shut of your jaws via your nostrils for a funeral viewing.”
One last note: why don’t we have a Science tag?