This is a book about all the different things that can happen, and have happened, to bodies after death. It’s about organ donation, medical research, not-so-medical research, body snatching, and new ways to decompose. And it’s absolutely fascinating.
Mary Roach has an easy, almost conversational, way of writing that takes a sometimes difficult and disgusting subject and makes it very readable. Roach adds herself in, and talks about what it’s like to witness various procedures and to talk to people who basically cut off heads for a living. She’s a journalist, not a scientist, but has done enough research to know what she’s talking about. Sometimes her humour is a little forced, particularly when she adds in a random comment, but when she just tells the story she can be funny while at the same time being totally respectful of the situation.
This isn’t the sort of book you’re likely to pick up if you’re squeamish about blood, bodies, or the details of surgery, but I think you should. Aside from the fact it’s just really interesting, it also makes you consider what you want, and the ethics of that, particularly when it comes to organ donation or donation to science.
I have strong feelings about what I want to happen to my body after death, and I had them even before reading this. Interestingly, Roach talks about this towards the end of the book and wonders if feeling strongly about it or having elaborate plans is a sign of a refusal to accept death, of a time where you have no control. She talks about how the people who survive you have to be able to live with what you ask them to do, and that whatever happens is more about those people than you, because you are dead. I do agree with her about not trying to force those around you to do things they’re not comfortable with, and that you’ll be dead, so you won’t know anyway. But, for me, it’s not about a non-acceptance of death, but of a lack of belief in an afterlife, and having no religion (so no beliefs about burial, etc in that sense), so not wanting to waste my body in death. I have a hope that whoever I leave behind will be comfortable with my choices, but, if not, I’ll be dead, so I won’t know. (My order of preference goes: organ/everything donation, medical research, medical training, ecological decomposition (human compost!). No traditional in-a-coffin burial.)
A non-morbid, morbid book which is interesting and funny and moving.