I've mentioned this book, Stiff, The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, a lot lately. It covered a lot of material that presented differently might be disturbing; instead it was nothing short of delightful. I laughed more reading this book than I do reading most books that bill themselves as humor. OK, so it's black humor (probably my favorite kind). But still. I found myself more sanguine about my own death, and prospects for the future. I consider it a wise investment on my part.
And for all that, the book is never disrespectful.
She talks a lot about the good things the dead do for the living.
Teaching the medical profession: From teaching anatomy to students in labs to allowing surgeons a forgiving patient on whom to practice, cadavers have long been considered an essential component to learning anatomy. So important that they fueled a cottage industry in providing specimens to medical students in the days when such things were illegal, or limited to the corpses of convicted murderers. (Beliefs in existence and location of the soul of course had a lot to do the laws at the time, as well).
Plastination now offers a way of preserving cadavers for study long after they would normally have gone the way of all flesh. Of course, they are no longer flesh. Are they?
Veering from teaching to actual medical heroism, she talks extensively about organ transplant. You can save a life by donating organs. How can that possibly be worse than decomposing in a box. You can, of course, do both. But if you are not an organ donor, please consider it seriously. It is a way that one's death can have great meaning and provide great good.
Having said that, she does go into forensics and human decay. The effects of death on the body. How the body is affected by embalming and what that involves. Versus cremation. Versus composting (yes).
Roach has chapters in which she discusses contribution of cadavers in crash tests, and in studying ballistics and bullet damage and bomb-blast effects.
In the book, she also goes into what the bodies of airline passengers who have died in plane crashes can tell us about the cause and circumstances of the crash. Quite a lot, as it turns out.
Another fascinating chapter (yeah, they're all fascinating), called "Eat Me" is about cannibalism, and talks about artist Diego Rivera's experiences when he and some friends bought fresh corpses from the city morgue and ate them. OK, that's pretty creepy. But is that just my societal perspective? In times of famine, some have turned to cannibalism. In medieval times, many medicinal cures involved ingesting body parts, excrement or blood (or better yet, mummy elixir), or applying human fat or saliva or excrement for cures. In 12th century Arabia, men could decide to be mellified--eat and drink only honey until they died, then be soaked in honey for 100 years. Small bites of their flesh was considered pretty much a cure-all. In China, one could show fealty as well as offer a cure to ailing parents or (better yet) in-laws by offering up various body parts (breast, fingers, abdominal wall, you name it) for medicinal ingestion.
And that's the tip of the iceberg.
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Me, well, I had planned on giving any organs that might be useful, then being cremated. In fact, my husband and I joined the National Cremation Society years ago. You decide what you want done, pay up front (it was very reasonable), and they take care of everything when you die. In addition, they will do so from wherever you may be, so that if you are overseas, they still take care of everything. When my husband died I did not have to make any decisions regarding disposition of his remains--he had made those decisions--and from what I have heard from others, my experience was greatly eased because of that.
fNow that I've read Mary Roach's book, well, I still carry my Cremation Society card. But I am intrigued by two other options. Composting. Susanne Wiigh-Masak's process involves being frozen in liquid nitrogen, then fractured into tiny pieces by ultrasound. The tiny pieces quickly turn to compost. I can think of worse things to do in my afterlife than nourishing a plant. It certainly appeals to the environmentalist in me.
And finally, I like the idea of plastination, though not of the cost. If I could have that done, I wouldn't mind spending the next 10,000 years dramatically posed without my skin, as millions of the curious walked by, mouths agape.