Remains of the day


Anatomy:  What happens to us when we die? This is the question Mary Roach, journalist and contributor to Salon, Wired, GQ, and Vogue, asks at the outset of this book, which is fascinating and at times very funny, writes Breffni O'Malley.

What follows is a series of self-contained essays in which Roach takes an organ here (say, the brain), a branch of research there (say, forensic science), and investigates the role of the cadaver in the history and development of medical research. If this sounds gruesome, well, it is. Sort of. But it's also fascinating, and at times very funny.

Roach approaches her subject with careful sensitivity, a wealth of historical research and a liberal dose of gallows humour. In 'Just a Head', she traces head transplant research back to the French Revolution, explaining how unfortunate victims of the guillotine - as if not stressed enough - had early scientists scooping their heads out of baskets and shouting their names to see if there was any flicker of recognition in their eyes. This rather unscientific approach continued up to and beyond the successful head transplant of a live monkey, and even the grafting of a second head onto a dog. It's a testament to how far things have yet to go in this field that when the first head woke up, he quickly bit the ear of the other and then settled down to a fitful, uneasy sleep.

In 'How To Know if You're Dead', Roach examines man's interest in the physical location of the soul, and what precisely it means to die. It turns out that this perennial human question has a very modern relevance, since it was the idea that the brain is the repository of the soul that helped pave the way for widespread acceptance of organ transplant surgery. In a fascinating aside characteristic of Roach's style, she tells of the case of Andrew Lyons, a killer who shot a man in the head in 1973, leaving him brain dead.

When Lyons's legal defence team found out that the victim had subsequently donated his heart for a transplant, they tried to argue that his heart surgeon, rather than Lyons, had committed the murder. Unsurprisingly, the judge had none of it and Lyons was convicted. As a result of the case, however, California passed legislation making brain death the legal definition of death. Other states around the US quickly followed suit.

Roach, who had the idea for this book while writing a health and body column for Salon magazine, is clearly passionate about her subject, and displays a keen eye for historical detail that helps enliven the stories she uncovers. Only occasionally does she falter - when the experiments she encounters seem dubious or contrived. Tests undertaken on cadavers to verify the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, for example, or the effect of bombs and bullets on human flesh, seem pointless and disrespectful to her and in turn, she fails to convince or engage in retelling them. The humour wears thin, and there is too much emphasis on research. You find yourself, as if at a bad accident, hurrying to move on.

For the most part though, Roach is thoroughly engaging. Unsurprisingly, she introduces us to many gruesome characters amid the history of human remains. Take Sir Astley Cooper, a 19th-century surgeon-anatomist who liked to paint friends' names onto human bone and then feed those bones to his laboratory dogs. He would later remove these from the dog's stomach, the gastric acid having eroded the bone around the inscribed name to create a personalised souvenir of human/canine interaction. Sir Astley liked to give these macabre mementoes out as personal gifts. Moreover, his guests were afraid to refuse, in case they might end up next in line for digestion themselves. One of Sir Astley's favourite boasts, in an era when body-snatching from fresh graves was commonplace, was that he "could get anyone".

Stiff is filled with similarly themed stories and individuals. At times, Roach's wisecracking West Coast style undermines her subject, but for the most part her balance of humour with this more grisly side of human (non-) existence is entertaining and highly readable. Perhaps like a cadaver itself, the book is less than the sum of its parts, but no less good for that.

Breffni O'Malley is a journalist and critic

Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers. By Mary Roach, Viking Penguin, 303pp, £14.99