A beautiful thing about my in-laws is that they buy me books for Christmas. It’s kind of a big deal because throughout my life various people have asked me what I want for Christmas and when I say books the reaction usually involves a dramatic combination of eye-rolling and the universal hand signals for choking and/or barfing. One year, my aunt said memorably, "What do you want for Christmas – and it better not be books!" It’s not that my family dislikes books. They just think they’re a pretty boring gift to give, in the same way that I think dvds and cds are boring gifts to give. My in-laws, however, are people who can appreciate a good list and they don’t really care what’s on it but, by God, you better make sure you provide them with a list.
One of the books I included on my list this past Christmas was Stiff by Mary Roach. I’d been meaning to read the book for a couple years but hadn’t gotten around to it. When I lived at home, I used to watch a lot of documentaries with my parents and I always found the forensics ones particularly interesting so naturally I thought Stiff would be a great match for me.
I had another motivation for wanting to read this book although I realize now I didn’t admit it to myself until I was well into the work. In 2003, my grandfather donated his body to science. He died, in hospital, while I was out of the country acting as bridesmaid for my sister-in-law. By the time I got home his body had been transported to the medical school at the University of Toronto. We did not receive notice that we could pick up my grandfather’s ashes until the summer of 2005. U of T’s policy is not to tell the family what the body has been used for and during that nearly two-year period of time I often reflected upon what was being done with it. I strongly felt that I wanted to know and, moreover, that I could handle knowing.
Well, here is my recommendation to you if you are considering reading Stiff to find out what may have happened to your loved one: Don’t. You are likely better off, like me, thinking about the more heartwarming scenarios that have undoubtedly already crossed your mind. Wouldn’t you like to believe that your loved one’s contribution to science helped develop a break-through surgery or assisted doctors in finding a cure for a terrible disease? Or potentially saved thousands of lives by participating in an automotive crash-test, or assisted in the advancement of criminal science at the body farm? If you are still wondering, the answer is yes. You would.
My grandfather was a very giving person but I don’t think he signed up to have his head sawn off and used in a continuing education class for cosmetic surgeons, just one of the many things cadavers do that Mary Roach explores in her book. Things that would never have occurred to me had I not cracked that particular spine. Stiff is a very interesting book. Mary Roach approaches her subject with fantastic sensitivity and humour. Despite this, I’m having a lot of difficulty finishing it. I’ve been reading it now for three months which is a very long time, even for someone who only manages to read during official daily commute time (a maximum of 25 minutes including time spent waiting for the train). I haven’t even peered between the covers for the entire month of March.
It’s unfortunate, because I know if I had read this book prior to November 2003 I would have devoured it. But I’ll struggle on, because in the end it doesn’t really matter if any of these things happened to my grandfather. It matters that he believed he was helping someone with his gesture. That has got to be the important point for me too.