Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Mary Roach

Created on Thursday, April 16, 2015.
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A fascinating account of what happens to our corpses when we’re dead.


I would not want to watch an experiment, no matter how interesting or important, that involved the remains of someone I knew and loved. (There are a few who do. Ronn Wade, who runs the anatomical gifts program at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, told me that some years back a woman whose husband had willed his body to the university asked if she could watch the dissection. Wade gently said no.) I feel this way not because what I would be watching is disrespectful, or wrong, but because I could not, emotionally, separate that cadaver from the person it recently was. One’s own dead are more than cadavers, they are place holders for the living. They are a focus, a receptacle, for emotions that no longer have one. The dead of science are always strangers.


One [medical student’s] tribute describes unwrapping her [anatomy class] cadaver’s hands and being brought up short by the realization that the nails were painted pink. “The pictures in the anatomy atlas did not show nail polish,” she wrote.

Did you choose the color? Did you think that I would see it? I wanted to tell you about the inside of your hands. I want you to know you are always there when I see patients. When I palpate an abdomen, yours are the organs I imagine. When I listen to a heart, I recall holding your heart.

It is one of the most touching pieces of writing I’ve ever heard.


The British investigators know what butchers have long known: If you want people to feel comfortable about dead bodies, cut them into pieces. A cow carcass is upsetting; a brisket is dinner. A human leg has no face, no eyes, no hands that once held babies or stroked a lover’s cheek. It’s difficult to associate it with the living person from which it came. The anonymity of body parts facilitates the necessary dissociations of cadaveric research: This is not a person. This is just tissue. It has no feelings, and no one has feelings for it. It’s okay to do things to it which, were it a sentient being, would constitute torture.


Living amid our culture’s heart-centric rhetoric, the valentines and the pop song lyrics, it is hard to imagine assigning spiritual or emotional sovereignty to the liver. Part of the reason for its exalted status among the early anatomists was that they erroneously believed it to be the origin of all the body’s blood vessels. (William Harvey’s discovery of the circulatory system dealt the liver-as-seat-of-the-soul theory a final fatal blow; Harvey, you will not be surprised to hear, believed that the soul was carried in the blood.) I think it was something else too. The human liver is a boss-looking organ. It’s glossy, aerodynamic, Olympian. It looks like sculpture, not guts. I’ve been marveling at H’s liver, currently being prepped for its upcoming journey. The organs around it are amorphous and unappealing. Stomachs are flappy, indistinct; intestines, chaotic and soupy. Kidneys skulk under bundles of fat. But the liver gleams. It looks engineered and carefully wrought. Its flanks have a subtle curve, like the horizon seen from space. If I were an ancient Babylonian, I guess I might think God splashed down here too.


There is her heart. I’ve never seen one beating. I had no idea they moved so much. You put your hand on your heart and you picture something pulsing slightly but basically still, like a hand on a desktop tapping Morse code. This thing is going wild in there. It’s a mixing-machine part, a stoat squirming in its burrow, an alien life form that’s just won a Pontiac on The Price Is Right. If you were looking for the home of the human body’s animating spirit, I could imagine believing it to be here, for the simple reason that it is the human body’s most animated organ.


According to a paper by James Tabler and Robert Frierson, recipients often wonder whether the donor “was promiscuous or oversexed, homosexual or bisexual, excessively masculine or feminine or afflicted with some sort of sexual dysfunction.” They spoke to a man who fantasized that his donor had had a sexual “reputation” and said he had no choice but to live up to it. Rausch and Kneen describe a forty-two-year-old firefighter who worried that his new heart, which had belonged to a woman, would make him less masculine and that his firehouse buddies would no longer accept him. (A male heart, Oz says, is in fact slightly different from a female heart. A heart surgeon can tell one from the other by looking at the ECG, because the intervals are slightly different. When you put a female heart into a man, it will continue to beat like a female heart. And vice versa.)


People have trouble believing Thomas Edison to be a loopy individual. I offer as evidence the following passage on human memory, taken from his diaries: “We do not remember. A certain group of our little people do this for us. They live in that part of the brain which has become known as the ‘fold of Broca.’ There may be twelve or fifteen shifts that change about and are on duty at different times like men in a factory. Therefore it seems likely that remembering a thing is all a matter of getting in touch with the shift that was on duty when the recording was done.”


Unless H’s family is planning a naked open-casket service, no one at her funeral will be able to tell she’s had organs removed. Only with tissue harvesting, which often includes leg and arm bones, does the body take on a slightly altered profile, and in this case PVC piping or dowels are inserted to normalize the form and make life easier for mortuary staff and others who need to move the otherwise somewhat noodle-ized body.

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
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