Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Body and its Dissolusion

When we think about death it is impossible to not consider the effect the end will have on the human body. How are we any different from the other organic materials we find around us? Entertainment media is quick to exaggerate the grotesqueness of decay, the scary corpses, and animated skeletons, the afterlife. But what is it really like for human remains? If you wade through the trash written for shock value out there, you can still find some very clear, informative and even entertaining books on the subject.

Let's start our journey with a pop-culture book by Mary Roach entitled STIFF (W.W. Norton and Co., 2003). In this little book, she addresses "The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers". Strangely enough, it is written in a witty and somewhat irreverent style but maintains an accurate and informative structure throughout. It is really mainly about the body, as most of the chapters explore how cadavers are used for research, from medical and dental schools to manufacturers of safety gear and military/forensic testing. Some chapters address historical cases of body snatching for anatomists, the physiological and philosophical difficulties of how to determine the moment of death, and even the author's own decision about being a body donor. This book is an excellent introduction to the cadaver as a resource and how this amazing organism continues to inform us after its death. For those not comfortable with the more graphic and disturbing literature that is out there or even the general idea of death, this book would be a good practical start.

For a more complete picture of "What Happens to Dead Bodies?", find Kenneth V. Iverson's sizable tome Death to Dust instead. (Galen Press, 1994) It seems to have been the source for most of Roach's information, but here it is fleshed out, scholarly, and comprehensive ... and heavily footnoted. Chapters are:
  1. Dying to Know: Introduction
  2. I'm Dead—Now What?
  3. Help for the Living: Organ, Tissue, and Whole Body Donation
  4. My Body and the Pathologist: The Autopsy
  5. Beauty in Death
  6. The Eternal Flame
  7. Souls on Ice
  8. Wayward Bodies
  9. Nightmares
  10. Going Out in Style
  11. Black Tie Affairs
  12. From Earth to Earth
  13. A Hand from the Grave
  14. Say it Gently: Words, Sayings and Poetry about the Dead
  15. plus a Glossary and ten Appendices
A good Australian website with similar information is at Death: The Last Tabboo. Again, nothing gross or sensational here, just good information from the Australian Museum. You can also find links and reference pages.

In future blogs I plan to explore how we picture death, how we collect artifacts and memorialize the dead. If you can suggest topics or resources that would be appropriate here, please feel free to submit them.

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