Magazine article The Spectator

Going on Being Useful

Magazine article The Spectator

Going on Being Useful

Article excerpt

Going on being useful

STIFF: THE CURIOUS LIVES OF HUMAN CADAVERS by Mary Roach Viking, L14.99, pp. 303, ISBN 0670912174

THE PHANTOM MUSEUM AND HENRY WELLCOME'S COLLECTION OF MEDICAL CURIOSITIES edited by Hildi Hawkins and Danielle Hawkins Profile, L12.99, pp. 205, ISBN 1861976186

By comparison with all previously existing people, we lead highly sanitised lives. To a quite unprecedented degree, we are spared the unpleasant sights, smells and sounds of illness, deformity, injury and death. Death, indeed, is a stranger to us, for all that the fundamental law of human existence - one man, one death - has not yet been abolished. We live as if we were immortals surrounded by other immortals; and for the first time in history we can die without ever having seen a dead body.

This does not suppress our appetite for the violent or the grotesque, however: quite the contrary. We are guiltily or morbidly curious about the very death and disease that we do not daily encounter. The voyeur lurks in most of us, waiting for its occasion to emerge. Mary Roach's book is mostly about the uses to which human corpses are sometimes put. People who leave their bodies to science don't necessarily know what science they arc leaving their bodies to, and might be less keen to do so if they did know: ballistics, for example, in which bullets are fired into bodies at various distances and angles. Making a better bullet is probably not what most people had in mind while philanthropically assigning their mortal remains to science.

Some corpses are put in carcrash simulators; others are buried in fields or forests to help forensic scientists learn about rates of decay in different climates and soils. Severed heads are used to teach new surgical techniques to cosmetic surgeons, or to learn about the injuries to he expected when an eye is struck with a baseball. A Swedish ecologist and entrepreneur called Susanne Wiigh-Masak has started a movement and a company to promote the use of human remains as compost: corpses will be freeze-dried and then pounded by ultrasound waves into little compost-sized chunks that can be used to fertilise memorial rose bushes as well as commercial crops. This idea has caught on among Sweden's post-religious, neo-pagan population: deliberately recycling one's nitrogen in useful or beautiful plants appeals both to the rationalist and the mystic in them.

Mary Roach's book is full of interest, but her tone throughout is jocular and facetious. It is set in the very first sentence: 'The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship.' This is not true, because it cannot be true; it is a tone that is adopted as a defence mechanism. …

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