Now Reading: The Life Eaters by David Brin and Scott Hampton
Just Finished: Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
How, you may ask, do I justify reading a nonfiction book for the RIP challenge? Well, Stiff is about the adventures of the dead. Most of us assume that our mortal remains will be prettied up and then buried beneath the tidy lawn of a cemetery. And this adventure, if you dare to call it that, is described later in the book.
Even burial wasn’t always the end. In the past, graverobbers would often dig up corpses and sell them to medical schools for dissection. And some, such as the notorious Burke and Hare wouldn’t even bother to rob graves, but simply nab unsuspecting victims off the street.
The usefulness of cadavers isn’t limited to dissection or surgical practice, however. The dead have been employed in automotive impact studies, in body armor tests, crucifixion simulations, and other such tests in which a mannequin, a pig carcass, or a slab of gelatin just won’t provide enough information.
The freshly dead can donate their organs to save the lives of others, of course, but we also learn that the brain-dead are preferred organ donors. These are the beating-heart cadavers, which would cease breathing and suffocate were they to be disconnected from their nests of life-support equipment. Yes, I’ve read Coma. It’s not much like that. Everything of value is donated at once, since the need is always great.
Should one choose to donate to science or not, or to donate organs or not, there is still the issue of what to do with one’s earthly remains. Burial is always an option, but is increasingly expensive and is not entirely kind to the environment. Cremation is a traditional alternative. Stiff describes two new techniques: water reduction and freeze-drying.
In the water-reduction process, a chemical process digests tissue into a liquid, leaving behind only crumbling bones. The process is far less energy intensive than traditional cremation. However, the thought of a loved one’s remains going down the drain has drawn the horror of many, so this process will probably not be widely adopted.
As for freeze-drying, the corpse is frozen, then crumbled using ultrasound, then freeze-dried. The result is a powdery substance that the inventor suggests be used as mulch for a memorial tree. I suppose that turning into fertilizer would be a bit more palatable to the public than turning into sewage.
There’s also mummification, which was mentioned as more of a segue into the pharmaceutical uses of mummies and mummy parts.
In summary, what I selected in hopes of being both a deliciously macabre and a factually informative book did not disappoint in the least.