Grave concerns

Stiff: the curious lives of human cadavers

Mary Roach <em>Penguin, 303pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 06709

Mary Roach sets out to discover what happens to bodies after people die. Some bodies are buried and some are cremated, after they have been washed, embalmed and dressed in their most flattering clothes. But all sorts of other, more interesting, things happen to dead bodies. They are cut open and "harvested" for their organs. They are sliced into pieces and studied by anatomists. Some are put into cars and crashed into walls. They are exploded, shot at, crucified, even eaten. "There can be no lonelier state of being than that of being a corpse," says Roach.

As for Roach herself, she says she'd like to donate her body to science. But what would her donated body be used for? Roach says she "was startled to learn that donated skin that isn't used for, say, grafting on to burn victims may be processed and used cosmetically to plump up wrinkles and aggrandise penises". Might this be her fate? "While I have no preconceived notions of the hereafter, I stand firm in my conviction that it should not take the form of someone else's underpants," she tells us.

Roach, a self-confessed fan of the Surgery Channel, travels all over the US looking at bodies and talking to people who work with them. These people are often quiet and rather intense. They are outsiders who routinely deal with things that everybody else tries to forget about. Corpse workers, says Roach, tend to objectify - they think of corpses "as objects, not people". But as Roach discovers, corpses are not quite objects, and not quite people. "Cadavers," says Roach, "occasionally affect a sort of accidental humanness that catches the medical professional off guard."

Corpse professionals are slow, steady workers. Some body workers are employed to watch bodies decay and take notes - the science of decay is useful for forensic detection in murder cases. Roach goes to the University of Tennessee Medical Centre and watches as maggots consume a man's body. "Squirming grains of rice are crowded into the man's belly button," says Roach. What the maggots like to eat best is fat. And when maggots eat fat, it sounds like someone eating Rice Krispies.

Roach walks around the medical centre, looking at bodies in various stages of decay. First of all, the bacteria in the gut begin feeding on the gut itself. They produce gas, which gets trapped in the intestines, causing the body to swell. Some of this gas escapes. "As a matter of record," Roach tells us, "it can be said that dead people fart." After the bloating comes putrefaction. The organs containing the most bacteria are the ones that putrefy fastest - the digestive organs and the lungs. The brain goes quickly, too. Why? "Because all the bacteria in the mouth chew through the palate," a cadaver professional tells her.

One problem with using bodies for scientific research is that most dead bodies belong to old people, rather than a widespread demographic. So when, for instance, corpses of elderly people are used to find out what kind of shoes should be worn by people clearing landmines, the resulting information is not perfect. "It's like market-testing Kid Rock singles on a roomful of Perry Como fans," says Roach. Still, corpses play a useful part in the development of safety features in cars. As Roach points out: "For every cadaver that took an air bag in the face, 147 people per year survive otherwise fatal head-ons." But nobody wants to use dead children in crash tests, so there's still a lot we don't know.

Naturally, this book will make you feel sick. But you get used to it. Roach watches as a surgeon cuts out the heart of a brain-dead woman. "This thing is going wild in there," she says. She tries to find out if people who have their heads chopped off have a few seconds of sentient life as a head. The answer is: probably. One French researcher tells of looking into the eyes of a guillotined murderer's severed head. The eyes looked back. And how would Roach like to end up? She says she'd like to be plastinated, in the manner of the German anatomist Gunther von Hagens. But in the end, there is no pleasant or untroubling way to exist as a body. "No matter what you choose to do with your body when you die," says Roach, "it won't, ultimately, be very appealing."