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The New YorkerIn the twelfth century, the bazaars of Arabia were known to offer an exotic and allegedly salutary concoction called "mellified man" -- essentially human remains steeped in honey. Mellified man was also known as "human mummy confection," and one recipe for it called specifically for "a young, lusty man" as the main ingredient. This strange footnote in the history of death and decay is recalled by Mary Roach in her surprisingly lively Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. "Cadavers," Roach writes, "are our superheroes: They brave fire without flinching, withstand falls from tall buildings and head-on car crashes into walls." We learn, among other notable macabre facts, that a detached human head is about the size and weight of a roaster chicken, that King Ptolemy I of Egypt first green-lighted autopsies in 300 B.C., that embalming-fluid companies once sponsored best-preserved-body contests, and that the French at the time of the Revolution were obsessed with discovering how long guillotined heads remained aware of their surroundings.
Roach reports that the next big thing on the mortuary horizon is something called the "tissue digestor," which replaces the outmoded options of burial or cremation with, essentially, a big tub of lye. In Rest in Peace, the historian Gary Laderman looks into the culture of funeral homes in America, noting that embalming took off after the Lincoln assassination and became a booming business in the twentieth century, nudged along by the popularity of mummy films and a burgeoning class of undertakers leafing through Casket & Sunnyside magazine. As Roach puts it: "Death. It doesn't have to be boring." (Mark Rozzo)