I was apprehensive when our book club picked Stiff for our November selection but I could get the audiobook and I decided not to complain. The audiobook turned out to be amazing and I really loved the book. I was wondering what my fellow book-lovers would say. This is a book that’s hard to talk to people about unless they’re reading it too!
Mary Roach has written several books about unusual topics though Stiff was her first. She’s lived most of her adult life in California and her background is in magazine writing. She stuck mostly to travel writing and light science before Stiff.
A lot of the things covered in the book were things we hadn’t considered. The decay studies stuck with us all. I will say that the Wayne State Universities studies lasted the longest with me. I actually went to Wayne State for a work trip and got it all set up to see their crash barrier before my appointment. Unfortunately, the professor didn’t want to take me into the cadaver prep area. I’m actually kind of glad. The book seemed to oddly focus on my area of Detroit because the McCabe Funeral Home mentioned in the book is less than a mile from my library and I drive by it every time I go there. For anyone else who is interested, a librarian called them to ask about their new cremation techniques. It turns out the state shut them down before it could ever get off the ground. They objected to human remains going into the water supply.
The ethical distinctions between if the soul resided in the brain or heart were really interesting to us. Roach did a good job of explaining why it mattered so much. Another thing she made very clear was that decisions on what happens to a cadaver ultimately should be left up to the family. The living are the ones who have to live with either respecting or going against the desires the deceased had about what to be done with his body. We also discussed where a person is buried and if it’s done in the manner he or she asked for. The deceased won’t have to live with the decisions, but the family does.
A lot of our members felt there were parts of the book that were hard to read. The black box chapter was hardest for a lot. Roach tried to use humor in a lot of the book and sometimes it wasn’t enough to distract from the gruesome topic, the black box being one of those times. Most of the time, the disrespect seemed to be more about what was being done to the cadavers, not in Roach’s writing. She did keep a very detached style which must have helped her deal with her topic. One reader complained that in addition to being detached, the writing seemed to jump subjects a lot and felt a bit disjointed. We wondered if that was how Roach’s brain worked.
Hearing about grave robbing made it easy to see where Mary Shelly came up with Frankenstein. We thought the chapter on cellular memory had the same creepy feel to it. It was almost a disappointment to hear that those who claimed they had characteristics of their donors did not have corresponding claims. We wondered what someone with an animal donor might claim!
A few of our members had personal connections to the book. One reader had done a cadaver lab in college. She found it was hard to cut the body ad disassociate it from a living person. She recalls that not all of the students were as respectful as she had been or had wanted everyone to be. The procedures described in the book sounded different from her memories and she thinks protocols have changed since her time in the lab.
Another member had a family member who had been a breathing cadaver. She remembers that the staff had been very respectful of her family member, talking to him while they were waiting for all the doctors who would be receiving the donations to arrive at the hospital. Like Mary describes, the donor is treated more like a patient than a cadaver.
We’re not meeting in December but we’ll reconvene in January to talk about Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell. I’ll be starting it soon.
Until next time, write on.