Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

I happened to see this book while in a book store with Lauren a couple of years ago and picked it up for her. She has this weird fascination with cadavers and medical stuff like that in general; I, however, do not really care for medical stuff. I did have to say though, this book was quite intriguing. It talked about cadavers and how we use them to test things we couldn’t normally do with people still alive, but really, that was just the first half of it. The second half was experiments with the still living, head transplants, how we know if we’re dead, cannibalism, etc. All of the things surrounding death, but not actually dealing with cadavers (for the most part).

I’ve had this book review sitting in the hopper for a while now to the point where I don’t have the book fresh in my mind anymore unfortunately :(. Suffice it to say I did enjoy it. The book was written in a friendly manner so it was easy to digest, even when talking about somewhat complicated medical ideas. Some small things I remembered from the book:

  • Robert White is crazy. Transplanting heads of monkeys and having it work crazy.
  • If you fall out of an airplane and hit water, your clothes are likely to be ripped off of your body by the impact and you’ll be close to naked. You’ll also likely die because at that speed water is nearly as hard as the ground.
  • People have serious issues with using whole cadavers for projects (especially things like bullet testing), but for some reason getting parts of cadavers like the torso makes it easier (for both the people testing and for the higher ups stomaching the tests the scientists do).
  • A lot of people have problems with cadaver’s hands. For some reason it seems to personify the cadaver.
  • There are places where people decompose bodies in different ways to see what happens. They’re called body farms and are crazy. I’d like to go see one sometime.
  • The transitional point from being alive to being dead is incredibly hard to pinpoint down. Until 1968 it was thought that if your heart was still beating you were alive. After that date, Harvard scientists said that if you were brain dead, that was the point of death. It didn’t become part of the government’s way of thinking until 1981.
  • They’ve used cadavers to see if the Shroud of Turin is actually possible to get by crucifying someone with a cloth over their head

As for me, this book solidified my beliefs on death even more. Once you’re gone, you’re gone. There’s no way to come back and so what you do with my body (which is mine no longer), really doesn’t matter to me. I’d prefer that it goes to save people’s lives (if possible) and then go to science of some sort. If people can better the human race because of my dead body, I’m all for it.

The Sadness of Death

I tend to read a lot of random webpages over the course of my internet traversals and news gatherings. I’ve turned into somewhat of a news hound as I get older and manage to take in a tremendous amount of information. I certainly don’t remember it all, but certain things stick with you. I read a story the other day about a BART murder in self defense that really, really bothered me. The short of it is that a guy visiting the bay area was mugged, he fought back and stabbed the mugger with the mugger’s knife. The mugger runs home a block or two away and literally dies in his father’s arms. The guy getting mugged only fought back in self defense and didn’t mean to actually kill him, it was a complete accident.

That is a terrible story, and yet, that’s not the end of it. His father said this afterwards:

“I’m angry at both of them,” he said of the robbery victim and Veliz [the guy getting mugged]. “They took my son away from me. He was a hard-working kid.”

He added, “My son is dead. I want somebody to pay for this.”

I want to tell him that his son paid for this, he is paying for this, and I and everyone else who cares about this type of thing happening is paying for this. What his son did was not some victimless crime, it was armed robbery. However good his son was, he did something that ended up causing his own death. I say this not to be mean, but to be realistic. I want people to take responsibility for their actions. I am tremendously sorry for his loss, but blaming other people and making a guy who was mugged and fought back in self defense the “enemy” is the wrong way to go about doing this. Please put his death to good use and speak out against violent crimes, start a boys and girls club, do something productive.

I understand why most people feel how they do about death, but I also wish our culture would learn to embrace it as part of the natural order of things. One of the things that I read in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book that has stuck with me is how he perceives death. This quote in general sums it up. I apologize for the length, but it quite accurately describes how I feel about death.

A few years ago, a pro-government group in Ho Chi Minh City spread a rumor that I had passed away from a heart attack. This news caused much confusion inside the country. A Buddhist nun wrote me that the news arrived at her community while she was teaching a class of novices, and the atmosphere in the class sank and one nun passed out. I have been in exile for more than [thirty] years because of my involvement in the peace movement, and I do not know this young nun or the present generation of Buddhist monks and nuns in Vietnam. But life and death is only a fiction, and not very deep; why do you cry sister? You are studying Buddhism, doing what I am doing. So if you exist, I also exist. What does not exist cannot come into existence and what exists cannot cease to be. Have you realized that, sister? If we cannot bring a speck of dust from “existence” to “non-existence,” how can we do that to a human? On Earth, many people have been killed struggling for peace, for human rights, for freedom, and social justice, but no one can destroy them. They still exist. Sister, do you think that Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Lambrakis, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are “dead people”? No, they are still here. We are they. We carry them in each cell of our bodies. If you ever hear such news again, please smile. Your serene smile will prove that you have attained great understanding and courage. Buddhism and all of humankind expect this of you.