Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

4.4 519
by Mary Roach
     
 

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"One of the funniest and most unusual books of the year....Gross, educational, and unexpectedly sidesplitting."—Entertainment WeeklySee more details below

Overview

"One of the funniest and most unusual books of the year....Gross, educational, and unexpectedly sidesplitting."—Entertainment Weekly

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
In 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)

Publishers Weekly
"Uproariously funny" doesn't seem a likely description for a book on cadavers. However, Roach, a Salon and Reader's Digest columnist, has done the nearly impossible and written a book as informative and respectful as it is irreverent and witty. From her opening lines ("The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back"), it is clear that she's taking a unique approach to issues surrounding death. Roach delves into the many productive uses to which cadavers have been put, from medical experimentation to applications in transportation safety research (in a chapter archly called "Dead Man Driving") to work by forensic scientists quantifying rates of decay under a wide array of bizarre circumstances. There are also chapters on cannibalism, including an aside on dumplings allegedly filled with human remains from a Chinese crematorium, methods of disposal (burial, cremation, composting) and "beating-heart" cadavers used in organ transplants. Roach has a fabulous eye and a wonderful voice as she describes such macabre situations as a plastic surgery seminar with doctors practicing face-lifts on decapitated human heads and her trip to China in search of the cannibalistic dumpling makers. Even Roach's digressions and footnotes are captivating, helping to make the book impossible to put down. Agent, Jay Mandel. (Apr.) Forecast: Do we detect a trend to necrophilia? Two years ago it was mummies; in the last few months we have seen an account of the journeys of the corpse of Elmer McCurdy and a defense of undertakers; and now comes Roach's disquisition on cadavers. But death is, after all, a subject that just won't go away. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
VOYA
What happens to cadavers that are not sedately interred? If one donates one's body to science, what can be expected? How do surgeons become so skillful with their scalpels? From serving as a crash test dummy to starring in reanimation experiments, human cadavers have led interesting second lives throughout history. Bodies were stolen from cemeteries and dissected to learn more about anatomy. Bodies from airliner crashes often tell more about the crash than the black box from the cockpit. This book is chock full of interesting and rather entertaining bits of cadaver lore from long ago and today, leading the reader on a stroll through the Body Farm of history. Roach approaches the macabre topic of the body after death with knowledge and a sense of absurd humor. She even manages to make a rather entertaining event of the tale of plastic surgeons putting the head in a roasting pan and artistically remodeling a nose. Students will respond to the gory aspect of this book, but once the immediate appeal wears thin, they will continue to be intrigued by the minutiae that Roach reveals about cadavers. The toe tag cover will catch their interest, and even those writing reports will find very useful information on death, organ transplants, and being buried alive. VOYA CODES: 4Q 3P J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2003, W. W. Norton, 303p.; Illus. Photos. Biblio., Ages 12 to 18.
—Lynn Evarts
KLIATT
Roach is a most skilled magazine journalist, with a flair for both the telling fact and the astonishing perspective. Imagine a whole book on human cadavers and you'd never conceive of all the fascinating elements she explores in this well-received book (included in numerous "best of 2003" lists). Whether you'll want the book for your collection might depend on how much interest you think students would have in 25-30 page chapters that cover: the early history of anatomy and its sordid start in body thefts; human crash dummies and the search for auto safety; ballistics tests using the recently departed; mortuaries and the knowledge of human decay; and what plane crash remains can tell us about the cause of an air disaster. There are also side trips to explore decapitation, brains and souls, and medical cannibalism. Roach deftly mixes glib humor and a respect for human dignity in the most undignified of settings. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Norton, 303p. illus. bibliog., Ages 15 to adult.
—Daniel Levinson
Library Journal
Despite the irreverent, macabre title, this is a respectful and serious examination of what happens to cadavers, past and present. Salon columnist Roach explains how surgeons and doctors use cadavers donated for research purposes to help the living, and also examines potential new variations on how we bury the dead. She explores some interesting historical side avenues as well: the use of corpses to test the guillotine, earlier anatomical beliefs, grave robbers, the elixirs various civilizations concocted out of corpses for medicinal purposes, and, most important, how cadavers provided valuable information to us for understanding such plane crashes as TWA Flight 800. Roach also addresses philosophical issues. This unusual study is recommended for large public libraries and medical collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/02.]-Michael D. Cramer, Schwarz BioSciences, RTP, NC Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Those curious or brave enough to find out what really happens to a body that is donated to the scientific community can do so with this book. Dissection in medical anatomy classes is about the least bizarre of the purposes that science has devised. Mostly dealing with such contemporary uses such as stand-ins for crash-test dummies, Roach also pulls together considerable historical and background information. Bodies are divided into types, including "beating-heart" cadavers for organ transplants, and individual parts-leg and foot segments, for example, are used to test footwear for the effects of exploding land mines. Just as the nonemotional, fact-by-fact descriptions may be getting to be a bit too much, Roach swings into macabre humor. In some cases, it is needed to restore perspective or aid in understanding both what the procedures are accomplishing and what it is hoped will be learned. In all cases, the comic relief welcomes readers back to the world of the living. For those who are interested in the fields of medicine or forensics and are aware of some of the procedures, this book makes excellent reading.-Pam Johnson, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Fascinating, unexpectedly fresh and funny look at the multiplicity of ways in which cadavers benefit the living. Author of the "My Planet" column in Reader’s Digest and a regular contributor to Salon.com’s "Health and Body" section, Roach displays here a knack for persuading morticians, scientists, engineers, and others whose work involves corpses to let her watch them at their labors. From the opening chapter, in which 40 severed human heads are prepped for a plastic-surgery seminar, to the final one, in which whole bodies are plastinated with liquid polymers for a museum exhibit, she proves herself a keen observer and unflagging questioner. Roach watches an embalming at a college for morticians and visits a university study of human decomposition. She shows the value of cadavers in car-crash testing, in weapons research by the US Army, in investigations into airline disasters, in studies of the crucifixion and the guillotine. Not only do dead bodies provide organ transplants for fellow humans but they may, Roach reports, soon be transformed into compost--at least in ecologically aware Sweden. As for other exotic uses, a chapter subtitled "Medical Cannibalism and the Case of the Human Dumplings" tells it all. While Roach provides a vivid picture of the macabre activities she witnesses, it’s her offbeat musings, admissions, and reactions that give such life to her tales of the dead. She also provides history, mostly focusing on body-snatchers and the anatomists who used their services. Roach delights in imparting odd information, such as the fact that 18th-century students at certain Scottish medical schools could pay their tuition in corpses rather than cash, and when the curious factsunearthed by her research don’t fit neatly into her narrative, she slips them into droll footnotes. Informative, yes; entertaining, absolutely. (11 illustrations) Agent: Jay Mandel/William Morris
Susan Orlean
“Droll, dark, and quite wise, Stiff makes being dead funny and fascinating and weirdly appealing.”
Caleb Carr
“As fascinating as it is funny.... The research is admirable, the anecdotes carefully chosen, and the prose lively; and they combine to produce a book that everyone in the health care field should have to read, and everyone else will want to.”
Joseph H Davis
“The numerous tidbits of information derived from the author's travels and interviews make [this book] uniquely appealing.”
From the Publisher
"Not grisly but inspiring, this work considers the many valuable scientific uses of the body after death." —Library Journal
Tara Parker-Pope - Wall Street Journal
“This quirky, funny read offers perspective and insight about life, death and the medical profession.... You can close this book with an appreciation of the miracle that the human body really is.”
Michael Little - Washington City Paper
“A laugh-out-loud funny book... one of those wonderful books that offers up enlightenment in the guise of entertainment.”
Roy Rivenburg - Los Angeles Times
“As weird as the book gets, Roach manages to convey a sense of respect and appreciation for her subjects.”
Adam Woog - Seattle Times
“Roach is authoritative, endlessly curious and drolly funny. Her research is scrupulous and winningly presented.”
Susan Adams - Forbes
“Acutely entertaining, morbidly fascinating.”
Lisa Parsons - Hippo Press
“Roach is a masterful writer....Irreverent? Maybe a little. Disrespectful? Emphatically no.”
The Stranger
“An unflinching, often hilarious cultural history.”— Erica C Barnett
Memphis Flyer
“Bizarrely entertaining.”— Susan Ellis
Seattle Times
“Delightful....authoritative, endlessly curious and drolly funny.”— Adam Wong
Chicago Tribune
“Bring[s] alive a subject that has the potential to be deadly dull.”— Steve Fiffer
Natural History
“Mary Roach is an extremely funny science writer”— Laurence A Marschall
People Magazine
“Roach's conversational tone and her gallows humor bring her subjects to life....Morbidly entertaining.”— Alex Abramovich
Willamette Week
“Roach...goes into gruesome detail, but she also succeeds in not making the subject at hand too morbid.”— Kim Colton
Chicago Sun-Times
“Every detail is fascinating.”— Henry Kisor
Columbus Dispatch
“Her morbid subject—perverse, unsettling and voyeuristic—makes her book hard to put down.”— Dean Narcisco
Philadelphia News
“Roach traces the use of the cadaver...and describes odd, behind-the-scenes moments perfect to halt all discussion at dinner.”
Detroit Free Press
“Whimsical, hysterical and terribly interesting.”— Katy Human
Portland Oregonian
“What saves the subject matter from intolerable gruesomeness is Roach. Her interest is genuine, despite her droll tone.”— B.T. Shaw
Dallas Morning News
“Though the cover...will draw many readers to this book, its deft prose will keep them returning.”— Fred Bortz
Good Times Magazine
“Well-written and deadly funny.”— Bruce Willey
Coral Gables Gazette
“This bizarre tome will shock, disgust, intrigue and entertain you all at the same time.”— Mary Morrison
San Francisco Weekly
“Every page fairly drips with dark humor.”— Matt Palmquist
Tampa Tribune & Times
“[Roach] has written a curiously funny, touching and respectful study.”— Nancy Summers
Philadelphia City Paper
“A quick and compelling, if slightly uneasy, read.”— Justin Bauer
Richmond Times-Dispatch
“[Roach] artfully and humorously unwraps the mystery of the dead body....an interesting and informative read.”— Deborah Love
Science Books and Films
“Well written, with a reader-friendly format.”— Howard S Pitkow
Wisconsin State Journal
“A fascinating book and, once you pick it up, you won't likely put it down.”— William R Wineke
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
“A very funny book....full of surprises.”— Craig McLaughlin
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“Genuinely funny and destined to be a classic read.”— Donald A Collins
San Francisco Bay Guardian
“A joy to read....this is wonderful stuff.”— Tim Redmond
Chattanooga Times Free Press
“Surprisingly entertaining. Similar in tone to Bill Bryson's travel books, Roach manages to be humorous yet respectful.”— Rick Mathis
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“It's a rare talent that can make people want to throw up and laugh at the same time.”— Roy Rivenberg
Daily Yomiuri
“[Roach's] knack for detailed research and loose Dave Barry-ish style makes Stiff a leisurely and enjoyable read.”— Tom Westin
Washington Post
“Our own instinctive discomfort with death provides fodder for Roach's dry sense of humor throughout the book”— Ana Marie Cox
Time Out New York
“Roach's dry, irreverent wit makes for a delightful—though never disrespectful—read.”— Les Simpson
San Jose Mercury News
“[Roach] manages to make material that normally comes with a warning for the faint-hearted somehow light-hearted.”— Jill Wolfson
San Antonio Express-News
“Lively and quirky....the writer's style is genuinely warm...she has a keen eye for observation of unique and ironic details.”— Michael Jaffee
Tom Pantera - Forum
“An informative, gently funny but never irreverent look at the various uses society makes of the dead.”
Forbes
“Acutely entertaining, morbidly fascinating.”
Outside
“[A] mordantly witty history of the scientific contributions made by the no-longer-living.”
Gilbert Taylor - Booklist
“Roach writes in an insouciant style and displays her métier in tangents about bizarre incidents in pathological history. Death may have the last laugh, but, in the meantime, Roach finds merriment in the macabre.”
Tom Lynch - New City
“Roach's deliberate carefulness diminishes the topic's gore and sets a comfortable, comic tone that finds solace in its own oddity.”
Bridget Kinsella - PW Daily
“Expect the insightful with the hilarious.”
Brian Richard Boylan - Denver Post
“Mary Roach is one of an endangered species: a science writer with a sense of humor. She is able to make macabre funny without looting death of its dignity.”
Science News
“[Roach's] firsthand accounts of places and people make this a captivating look at life after death.”
Erica C Barnett - The Stranger
“An unflinching, often hilarious cultural history.”
Tom Westin - Daily Yomiuri
“[Roach's] knack for detailed research and loose Dave Barry-ish style makes Stiff a leisurely and enjoyable read.”
Susan Ellis - Memphis Flyer
“Bizarrely entertaining.”
Netsurfer.com
“A funny but never disrespectful look at the curious world of cadaver research.”
Adam Wong - Seattle Times
“Delightful....authoritative, endlessly curious and drolly funny.”
Steve Fiffer - Chicago Tribune
“Bring[s] alive a subject that has the potential to be deadly dull.”
Laurence A Marschall - Natural History
“Mary Roach is an extremely funny science writer”
Alex Abramovich - People Magazine
“Roach's conversational tone and her gallows humor bring her subjects to life....Morbidly entertaining.”
Ana Marie Cox - Washington Post
“Our own instinctive discomfort with death provides fodder for Roach's dry sense of humor throughout the book”
Kim Colton - Willamette Week
“Roach...goes into gruesome detail, but she also succeeds in not making the subject at hand too morbid.”
Henry Kisor - Chicago Sun-Times
“Every detail is fascinating.”
Dean Narcisco - Columbus Dispatch
“Her morbid subject—perverse, unsettling and voyeuristic—makes her book hard to put down.”
Discover Magazine
“A fascinating survey of the data yielded by corpses both medieval and modern.”
Los Angeles Times
“As weird as the book gets, Roach manages to convey a sense of respect and appreciation for her subjects.”
T.D. Mobley-Martinez - Philadelphia News
“Roach traces the use of the cadaver...and describes odd, behind-the-scenes moments perfect to halt all discussion at dinner.”
Les Simpson - Time Out New York
“Roach's dry, irreverent wit makes for a delightful—though never disrespectful—read.”
American Scientist
“Roach exhibits both a keen sense of humor and a sincere respect for the dearly departed.”
Katy Human - Detroit Free Press
“Whimsical, hysterical and terribly interesting.”
B.T. Shaw - Portland Oregonian
“What saves the subject matter from intolerable gruesomeness is Roach. Her interest is genuine, despite her droll tone.”
Fred Bortz - Dallas Morning News
“Though the cover...will draw many readers to this book, its deft prose will keep them returning.”
Bruce Willey - Good Times Magazine
“Well-written and deadly funny.”
Mary Morrison - Coral Gables Gazette
“This bizarre tome will shock, disgust, intrigue and entertain you all at the same time.”
Matt Palmquist - San Francisco Weekly
“Every page fairly drips with dark humor.”
Jill Wolfson - San Jose Mercury News
“[Roach] manages to make material that normally comes with a warning for the faint-hearted somehow light-hearted.”
Nancy Summers - Tampa Tribune & Times
“[Roach] has written a curiously funny, touching and respectful study.”
Washington City Paper
“A laugh-out-loud funny book....one of those wonderful books that offers enlightenment in the guise of entertainment.”
Justin Bauer - Philadelphia City Paper
“A quick and compelling, if slightly uneasy, read.”
Deborah Love - Richmond Times-Dispatch
“[Roach] artfully and humorously unwraps the mystery of the dead body....an interesting and informative read.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Fascinating and oddly fun.”
Howard S Pitkow - Science Books and Films
“Well written, with a reader-friendly format.”
William R Wineke - Wisconsin State Journal
“A fascinating book and, once you pick it up, you won't likely put it down.”
Michael Jaffee - San Antonio Express-News
“Lively and quirky....the writer's style is genuinely warm...she has a keen eye for observation of unique and ironic details.”
Craig McLaughlin - Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
“A very funny book....full of surprises.”
Austin American-Statesman
“Roach saw some macabre things, but she describes them with respect and irresistible humor.”
Donald A Collins - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“Genuinely funny and destined to be a classic read.”
Tim Redmond - San Francisco Bay Guardian
“A joy to read....this is wonderful stuff.”
Rick Mathis - Chattanooga Times Free Press
“Surprisingly entertaining. Similar in tone to Bill Bryson's travel books, Roach manages to be humorous yet respectful.”
Roy Rivenberg - Los Angeles Times Book Review
“It's a rare talent that can make people want to throw up and laugh at the same time.”
Staff Forum
“An informative, gently funny but never irreverent look at the various uses society makes of the dead.”— Tom Pantera
Booklist
“Roach displays her metier in tangents about bizarre incendents in pathological history.”— Gilbert Taylor
New City
“Roach's deliberate carefulness diminishes the topic's gore and sets a comfortable, comic tone that finds solace in its own oddity.”— Tom Lynch
Denver Post
“Outrageously funny, irreverent"—but respectful....so delightfully written, this book is difficult to put down.”— Brian Richard Boylan

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393069198
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
05/17/2004
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Sales rank:
12,490
File size:
1 MB

Read an Excerpt

A Head Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Practicing surgery on the dead

The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I seen a head in a roasting pan. But here are forty of them, one per pan, resting face-up on what looks to be a small pet-food bowl. The heads are for plastic surgeons, two per head, to practice on. I'm observing a facial anatomy and face-lift refresher course, sponsored by a southern university medical center and led by a half-dozen of America's most sought-after face-lifters.

The heads have been put in roasting pans -- which are of the disposable aluminum variety -- for the same reason chickens are put in roasting pans: to catch the drippings. Surgery, even surgery upon the dead, is a tidy, orderly affair. Forty folding utility tables have been draped in lavender plastic cloths, and a roasting pan is centered on each. Skin hooks and retractors are set out with the pleasing precision of restaurant cutlery. The whole thing has the look of a catered reception. I mention to the young woman whose job it was to set up the seminar this morning that the lavender gives the room a cheery sort of Easter-party feeling. Her name is Theresa. She replies that lavender was chosen because it's a soothing color.

It surprises me to hear that men and women who spend their days pruning eyelids and vacuuming fat would require anything in the way of soothing, but severed heads can be upsetting even to professionals. Especially fresh ones ("fresh" here meaning unembalmed). The forty heads are from people who have died in the past few days and, as such, still look very much the way they looked while those people were alive. (Embalming hardens tissues, making the structures less pliable and the surgery experience less reflective of an actual operation.)

For the moment, you can't see the faces. They've been draped with white cloths, pending the arrival of the surgeons. When you first enter the room, you see only the tops of the heads, which are shaved down to stubble. You could be looking at rows of old men reclining in barber chairs with hot towels on their faces. The situation only starts to become dire when you make your way down the rows. Now you see stumps, and the stumps are not covered. They are bloody and rough. I was picturing something cleanly sliced, like the edge of a deli ham. I look at the heads, and then I look at the lavender tablecloths. Horrify me, soothe me, horrify me.

They are also very short, these stumps. If it were my job to cut the heads off bodies, I would leave the neck and cap the gore somehow. These heads appear to have been lopped off just below the chin, as though the cadaver had been wearing a turtleneck and the decapitator hadn't wished to damage the fabric. I find myself wondering whose handiwork this is.

"Theresa?" She is distributing dissection guides to the tables, humming quietly as she works.

"Mm?"

"Who cuts off the heads?"

Theresa answers that the heads are sawed off in the room across the hall, by a woman named Yvonne. I wonder out loud whether this particular aspect of Yvonne's job bothers her. Likewise Theresa. It was Theresa who brought the heads in and set them up on their little stands. I ask her about this. "What I do is, I think of them as wax."

Theresa is practicing a time-honored coping method: objectification. For those who must deal with human corpses regularly, it is easier (and, I suppose, more accurate) to think of them as objects, not people. For most physicians, objectification is mastered their first year of medical school, in the gross anatomy lab, or "gross lab," as it is casually and somewhat aptly known. To help depersonalize the human form that students will be expected to sink knives into and eviscerate, anatomy lab personnel often swathe the cadavers in gauze and encourage students to unwrap as they go, part by part.

The problem with cadavers is that they look so much like people. It's the reason most of us prefer a pork chop to a slice of whole suckling pig. It's the reason we say "pork" and "beef" instead of "pig" and "cow." Dissection and surgical instruction, like meat-eating, require a carefully maintained set of illusions and denial. Physicians and anatomy students must learn to think of cadavers as wholly unrelated to the people they once were. "Dissection," writes historian Ruth Richardson in Death, Dissection, and the Destitute, "requires in its practitioners the effective suspension or suppression of many normal physical and emotional responses to the wilful mutilation of the body of another human being."

Heads -- or more to the point, faces -- are especially unsettling. At the University of California, San Francisco, in whose medical school anatomy lab I would soon spend an afternoon, the head and hands are often left wrapped until their dissection comes up on the syllabus. "So it's not so intense," one student would later tell me. "Because that's what you see of a person."

The surgeons are beginning to gather in the hallway outside the lab, filling out paperwork and chatting volubly. I go out to watch them. Or to not watch the heads, I'm not sure which. No one pays much attention to me, except for a small, dark-haired woman, who stands off to the side, staring at me. She doesn't look as if she wants to be my friend. I decide to think of her as wax. I talk with the surgeons, most of whom seem to think I'm part of the setup staff. A man with a shrubbery of white chest hair in the V-neck of his surgical scrubs says to me: "Were y'in there injectin' 'em with water?" A Texas accent makes taffy of his syllables. "Plumpin' 'em up?" Many of today's heads have been around a few days and have, like any refrigerated meat, begun to dry out. Injections of saline, he explains, are used to freshen them.

Abruptly, the hard-eyed wax woman is at my side, demanding to know who I am. I explain that the surgeon in charge of the symposium invited me to observe. This is not an entirely truthful rendering of the events. A entirely truthful rendering of the events would employ words such as "wheedle," "plead," and "attempted bribe."

"Does publications know you're here? If you're not cleared through the publications office, you'll have to leave." She strides into her office and dials the phone, staring at me while she talks, like security guards in bad action movies just before Steven Seagal clubs them on the head from behind.

One of the seminar organizers joins me. "Is Yvonne giving you a hard time?"

Yvonne! My nemesis is none other than the cadaver beheader. As it turns out, she is also the lab manager, the person responsible when things go wrong, such as writers fainting and/or getting sick to their stomach and then going home and writing books that refer to anatomy lab managers as beheaders. Yvonne is off the phone now. She has come over to outline her misgivings. The seminar organizer reassures her. My end of the conversation takes place entirely in my head and consists of a single repeated line. You cut off heads. You cut off heads. You cut off heads.

Meanwhile, I've missed the unveiling of the faces. The surgeons are already at work, leaning kiss-close over their specimens and glancing up at video monitors mounted above each work station. On the screen are the hands of an unseen narrator, demonstrating the procedures on a head of his own. The shot is an extreme close-up, making it impossible to tell, without already knowing, what kind of flesh it is. It could be Julia Child skinning poultry before a studio audience.

The seminar begins with a review of facial anatomy. "Elevate the skin in a subcutaneous plane from lateral to medial," intones the narrator. Obligingly, the surgeons sink scalpels into faces. The flesh gives no resistance and yields no blood.

"Isolate the brow as a skin island." The narrator speaks slowly, in a flat tone. I'm sure the idea is to sound neither excited and delighted at the prospect of isolating skin islands, nor overly dismayed. The net effect is that he sounds chemically sedated, which seems to me like a good idea. I walk up and down the rows. The heads look like rubber Halloween masks. They also look like human heads, but my brain has no precedent for human heads on tables or in roasting pans or anywhere other than on top of human bodies, and so I think it has chosen to interpret the sight in a more comforting manner. Here we are at the rubber mask factory. Look at the nice men and women working on the masks. I used to have a Halloween mask of an old toothless man whose lips fell in upon his gums. There are several of him here. There is a Hunchback of Notre Dame, bat-nosed and with lower teeth exposed, and a Ross Perot.

The surgeons don't seem queasy or repulsed, though Theresa told me later that one of them had to leave the room. "They hate it," she says. "It" meaning working with heads. I sense from them only a mild discomfort with their task. As I stop at their tables to watch, they turn to me with a vaguely irritated, embarrassed look. You've seen that look if you make a habit of entering bathrooms without knocking. The look says, Please go away.

Though the surgeons clearly do not relish dissecting dead people's heads, they just as clearly value the opportunity to practice and explore on someone who isn't going to wake up and look in the mirror anytime soon. "You have a structure you keep seeing [during surgeries], and you're not sure what it is, and you're afraid to cut it," says one surgeon. "I came here with four questions." If he leaves today with answers, it will have been worth the $500. The surgeon picks his head up and sets it back down, adjusting its position like a seamstress pausing to shift the cloth she is working on. He points out that the heads aren't cut off out of ghoulishness. They are cut off so that someone else can make use of the other pieces: arms, legs, organs. In the world of donated cadavers, nothing is wasted. Before their face-lifts, today's heads got nose jobs in the Monday rhinoplasty lab.

It's the nose jobs that I trip over. Kindly, dying southerners willed their bodies for the betterment of science, only to end up as practice runs for nose jobs? Does it make it okay that the kindly southerners, being dead kindly southerners, have no way of knowing that this is going on? Or does the deceit compound the crime? I spoke about this later with Art Dalley, the director of the Medical Anatomy Program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and an expert in the history of anatomical gift-giving. "I think there's a surprising number of donors who really don't care what happens to them," Dalley told me. "To them it's just a practical means of disposing of a body, a practical means that fortunately has a ring of altruism."

Though it's harder to justify the use of a cadaver for practicing nose jobs than it is for practicing coronary bypasses, it is justifiable nonetheless. Cosmetic surgery exists, for better or for worse, and it's important, for the sake of those who undergo it, that the surgeons who do it are able to do it well. Though perhaps there ought to be a box for people to check, or not check, on their body donor form: Okay to use me for cosmetic purposes.

I sit down at Station 13, with a Canadian surgeon named Marilena Marignani. Marilena is dark-haired, with large eyes and strong cheekbones. Her head (the one on the table) is gaunt, with a similarly strong set to the bones. It's an odd way for the two women's lives to intersect; the head doesn't need a face-lift, and Marilena doesn't usually do them. Her practice is primarily reconstructive plastic surgery. She has done only two face-lifts before and wants to hone her skills before undertaking a procedure on a friend. She wears a mask over her nose and mouth, which is surprising, because a severed head is in no danger of infection. I ask whether this is more for her own protection, a sort of psychological barrier.

Marilena replies that she doesn't have a problem with heads. "For me, hands are hard." She looks up from what she's doing. "Because you're holding this disconnected hand, and it's holding you back." Cadavers occasionally effect a sort of accidental humanness that catches the medical professional off guard. I once spoke to an anatomy student who described a moment in the lab when she realized the cadaver's arm was around her waist. It becomes difficult, under circumstances such as these, to retain one's clinical remove.

I watch Marilena gingerly probing the woman's exposed tissue. What she is doing, basically, is getting her bearings: learning -- in a detailed, hands-on manner -- what's what and what's where in the complicated layering of skin, fat, muscle, and fascia that makes up the human cheek. While early face-lifts merely pulled the skin up and stitched it, tightened, into place, the modern face-lift lifts four individual anatomical layers. This means all of these layers must be identified, surgically separated from their neighbors, individually repositioned, and sewn into place -- all the while taking care not to sever vital facial nerves. With more and more cosmetic procedures being done endoscopically-by introducing tiny instruments through a series of minimally invasive incisions -- knowing one's way around the anatomy is even more critical. "With the older techniques, they peeled everything down and they could see it all in front of them," says Ronn Wade, director of the Anatomical Services Division of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "Now when you go in with a camera and you're right on top of something, it's harder to keep yourself oriented."

Marilena's instruments are poking around the edges of a glistening yolk-colored blob. The blob is known among plastic surgeons as the malar fat pad. "Malar" means relating to the cheek. The malar fat pad is the cushion of youthful padding that sits high on your cheekbone, the thing grandmothers pinch. Over the years, gravity coaxes the fat from its roost, and it commences a downward slide, piling up at the first anatomical roadblock it reaches: the nasolabial folds (the anatomical parentheses that run from the edges of a middle-aged nose down to the corners of the mouth). The result is that the cheeks start to look bony and sunken, and bulgy parentheses of fat reinforce the nasolabial lines. During face-lifts, surgeons put the malar fat pad back up where it started out. "This is great," says Marilena. "Beautiful. Just like real, but no bleeding. You can really see what you're doing."

Though surgeons in all disciplines benefit from the chance to try out new techniques and new equipment on cadaveric specimens, fresh parts for surgical practice are hard to come by. When I telephoned Ronn Wade in his office in Baltimore, he explained that the way most willed body programs are set up, anatomy labs have first priority when a cadaver comes in. And even when there's a surplus, there may be no infrastructure in place to get the bodies from the anatomy department of the medical school over to the hospitals where the surgeons are -- and no place at the hospital for a surgical practice lab. At Marilena's hospital, surgeons typically get body parts only when there's been an amputation. Given the frequency of human head amputations, an opportunity like today's would be virtually nonexistent outside of a seminar.

Wade has been working to change the system. He is of the opinion -- and it's hard to disagree with him -- that live surgery is the worst place for a surgeon to be practicing a new skill. So he got together with the heads -- sorry, chiefs -- of surgery at Baltimore's hospitals and worked out a system. "When a group of surgeons want to get together and try out, say, some new endoscopic technique, they call me and I set it up." Wade charges a nominal fee for the use of the lab, plus a small per-cadaver fee. Two-thirds of the bodies Wade takes in now are being used for surgical practice.

I was surprised to learn that even when surgeons are in residencies, they aren't typically given an opportunity to practice operations on donated cadavers. Students learn surgery the way they have always learned: by watching experienced surgeons at work. At teaching hospitals affiliated with medical schools, patients who undergo surgery typically have an audience of interns. After watching an operation a few times, the intern is invited to step in and try his or her hand, first on simple maneuvers such as closures and retractions, and gradually at more complicated steps. "It's basically on-the-job training," says Wade. "It's an apprenticeship." It has been this way since the early days of surgery, the teaching of the craft taking place largely in the operating room. Only in the past century, however, has the patient routinely stood to gain from the experience. Nineteenth-century operating "theaters" had more to do with medical instruction than with saving patients' lives. If you could, you stayed out of them at all cost.

For one thing, you were being operated on without anesthesia. (The first operations under ether didn't take place until 1846.) Surgical patients in the late 1700s and early 1800s could feel every cut, stitch, and probing finger. They were often blindfolded -- this may have been optional, not unlike the firing squad hood -- and invariably bound to the operating table to keep them from writhing and flinching or, quite possibly, leaping from the table and fleeing into the street. (Perhaps owing to the presence of an audience, patients underwent surgery with most of their clothes on.) The early surgeons weren't the hypereducated cowboy-saviors they are today. Surgery was a new field, with much to be learned and near-constant blunders. For centuries, surgeons had shared rank with barbers, doing little beyond amputations and tooth pullings, while physicians, with their potions and concoctions, treated everything else. (Interestingly, it was proctology that helped pave the way for surgery's acceptance as a respectable branch of medicine. In 1687, the king of France was surgically relieved of a painful and persistent anal fistula and was apparently quite grateful for, and vocal about, his relief.)

Nepotism, rather than skill, secured a post at early-nineteenth-century teaching hospitals. The December 20, 1828, issue of The Lancet contains excerpts from one of the earliest surgical malpractice trials, which centered on the incompetency of one Bransby Cooper, nephew of the famed anatomist Sir Astley Cooper. Before an audience of some two hundred colleagues, students, and onlookers, the young Cooper proved beyond question that his presence in the operating theater owed everything to his uncle and nothing to his talents. The operation was a simple bladder stone removal (lithotomy) at London's Guy's Hospital; the patient, Stephen Pollard, was a hardy working-class man. While lithotomies were normally completed in a matter of minutes, Pollard was on the table for an hour, with his knees at his neck and his hands bound to his feet while the clueless medic tried in vain to locate the stone. "A blunt gorget was also introduced, and the scoop, and several pair of forceps," recalled one witness. Another described the "horrible squash, squash of the forceps in the perineum." When a succession of tools failed to produce the stone, Cooper "introduced his finger with some force. . . ." It was around this point that Pollard's endurance ran dry. "Oh! Let it go!" he is quoted as saying. "Pray let it keep in!" Cooper persisted, cursing the man's deep perineum (in fact, an autopsy showed it to be a quite normally proportioned perineum). After digging with his finger for some ungodly amount of time, he got up from his seat and "measured fingers with those of other gentlemen, to see if any of them had a longer finger." Eventually he went back to his toolkit and, with forceps, conquered the recalcitrant rock -- a relatively small one, "not larger than a common Windsor bean" -- brandishing it above his head like an Academy Award winner. The quivering, exhausted mass that was Stephen Pollard was wheeled to a bed, where he died of infection and God knows what else twenty-nine hours later.

Bad enough that some ham-handed fop in a waistcoat and bowtie was up to his wrists in your urinary tract, but on top of that you had an audience -- not just the young punters from the medical school but, judging from a description of another lithotomy at Guy's Hospital in an 1829 Lancet, half the city: "Surgeons and surgeons' friends, . . . French visitors, and interlopers filled the space around the table. . . . There was soon a general outcry throughout the gallery and upper rows -- 'hat's off,' 'down heads,' . . . was loudly vociferated from different parts of the theatre."

The cabaret atmosphere of early medical instruction began centuries before, in the standing-room-only dissecting halls of the renowned Italian medical academies of Padua and Bologna. According to C. D. O'Malley's biography of the great Renaissance anatomist Andreas Vesalius, one enthusiastic spectator at a crowded Vesalius dissection, bent on a better view, leaned too far out and tumbled from his bench to the dissecting platform below. "Because of his accidental fall . . . , the unfortunate Master Carlo is unable to attend and is not very well," read the note proffered at the next lecture. Master Carlo, one can be sure, did not seek treatment at the place he went for lectures.

Without exception, the only people who checked themselves in at teaching hospitals were those too poor to pay for private surgery. In return for an operation that was as likely to kill them as make them better -- bladder stone removal had a mortality rate of 50 percent -- the poor basically donated themselves as living practice material. Not only were the surgeons unskilled, but many of the operations being done were purely experimental-no one really expected them to help. Wrote historian Ruth Richardson in Death, Dissection, and the Destitute, "The benefit [to the patient] was often incidental to the experiment."

With the advent of anesthesia, patients were at least unconscious while the young resident tried his hand at a new procedure. But they probably didn't give their permission for a trainee to take the helm. In the heady days before consent forms and drop-of-a-hat lawsuits, patients didn't realize what they might be in for if they underwent surgery at a teaching hospital, and doctors took advantage of this fact. While a patient was under, a surgeon might invite a student to practice an appendectomy. Never mind that the patient didn't have appendicitis. One of the more common transgressions was the gratuitous pelvic exam. A budding M.D.'s first Pap smear -- the subject of significant anxiety and dread-was often administered to an unconscious female surgical patient. (Nowadays, enlightened medical schools will hire a "pelvic educator," a sort of professional vagina who allows the students to practice on her and offers personalized feedback and is, in my book anyway, a nominee for sainthood.) Gratuitous medical procedures happen far less than they used to, owing to the public's growing awareness. "Patients are savvier these days, and the climate has changed a great deal," Hugh Patterson, who runs the willed body program at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical School, told me. "Even at a teaching hospital, patients request that residents not do the surgery. They want to be assured the attending does the procedure. It makes training very difficult."

Patterson would like to see specialized cadaver anatomy labs added to third- and fourth-year programs -- instead of teaching anatomy only in the first year, "as one big bolus." Already, he and his colleagues have added a focused dissection, similar to the facial anatomy lab I'm observing today, to the curricula of surgical subspecialties. They've also set up a series of sessions at the medical school morgue to teach emergency room procedures to third-year students. Before a cadaver is embalmed and delivered to the anatomy lab, it may pass an afternoon getting tracheal intubations and catheterizations. (Some schools use anesthetized dogs for this purpose.) Given the urgency and difficulty of certain ER procedures, it makes good sense to practice them first on the dead. In the past, this has been done in a less formal manner, on freshly dead hospital patients, without consent-a practice whose propriety is intermittently debated in hushed meetings of the American Medical Association. They should probably just ask for permission: According to one New England Journal of Medicine study on the subject, 73 percent of parents of newly dead children, when asked, gave consent to use their child's body for teaching intubation skills.

I ask Marilena if she plans to donate her remains. I have always assumed that a sense of reciprocity prompts doctors to donate -- repayment for the generosity of the people they dissected in medical school. Marilena, for one, isn't going to. She cites a lack of respect. It surprises me to hear her say this. As far as I can tell, the heads are being treated with respect. I hear no joking or laughter or callous comments. If there can be a respectful way to "deglove" a face, if loosening the skin of someone's forehead and flipping it back over his or her eyes can be a respectful act, then I think these people are managing it. It's strictly business. It turns out that what Marilena objected to was a couple of the surgeons' taking photographs of their cadaver heads. When you take a photograph of a patient for a medical journal, she points out, you have the patient sign a release. The dead can't refuse to sign releases, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't want to. This is why cadavers in photographs in pathology and forensics journals have black bars over their eyes, like women on the Dos and Don'ts pages of Glamour. You have to assume that people don't want to be photographed dead and dismembered, any more than they want to be photographed naked in the shower or asleep on a plane with their mouth hanging open. Most doctors aren't worried about a lack of respect from other doctors. Most of the ones I've spoken to would worry, if anything, about a lack of respect from students in the first-year gross anatomy lab -- my next stop. The seminar is nearly over. The video monitors are blank and the surgeons are cleaning up and filing out into the hallway. Marilena replaces the white cloth on her cadaver's face; about half the surgeons do this. She is conscientiously respectful. When I asked her why the eyes of the dead woman had no pupils, she did not answer, but reached up and closed the eyelids. As she slides back her chair, she looks down at the benapkined form and says, "May she rest in peace." I hear it as "pieces," but that's just me.

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What People are saying about this

Susan Orlean
Droll, dark, and quite wise, Stiff makes being dead funny and fascinating and weirdly appealing.
From the Publisher
"Not grisly but inspiring, this work considers the many valuable scientific uses of the body after death." —-Library Journal

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