In-flight reading for the morbid or insane


This week’s flights had me reading Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach.  The book examines the various ways in which cadavers have been used throughout history to help forward medicine, engineering and a few other disciplines as well.  With a background as a travel writer Roach has a certain travelogue style of writing, one that intersperses narrative with random personal asides and insight.  When dead bodies get involved that becomes interesting, as she intertwines stories of watching her parents pass away and also some of the fun bits about the smells and sights she experiences as she works with various groups to get a feel for how the human body behaves after death in the various states it may find itself – evidence, medical school training tool, crash test dummy and more.

The tales of cadaver use in medical school training – gross anatomy courses – are somewhat interesting.  The students bond with their cadavers somewhat and many actually hold funerals for them at the end of the semester.  But this isn’t the most interesting thing that Roach explores in terms of how bodies are used in science.  Want to learn about grave diggers from the 18th century and how some mysteriously fresh cadavers seemed to appear regularly at certain doctors’ offices?  A couple chapters of the book cover that. 

But the best part – in my mind – is the section on the folks who research dead bodies for the sake of forensic science.  A group of researchers in Knoxville, Tennessee seem to have cornered the market on this aspect of forensic science and they quite a facility.  They literally take cadaver bodies out into woods and “prepare” them as though they were being dumped by murderers.  Wrapped in plastic bags or carpets or just hidden under piles of leaves, the bodies are left to decompose.  They are inspected frequently to document the effects of time on the bodies.  This data is then used in homicide investigations to help pinpoint time of death well after liver temperature becomes irrelevant.

The author spends a bit of the book discussing the crash of TWA 800 with Dennis Shanahan, an expert in injury analysis.  He can look at the patterns of injuries from an event and glean from them the likely cause.  Most of his work is with insurance companies and reviewing injuries of the living who are making specious claims.  But he has also worked on analyzing the deceased following airplane crashes.  Things like mapping seat assignments to burn patterns or fragmentation within the bodies to determine where exactly an explosion came from on the plane.  The analysis is rather interesting and certainly entertaining.  Most heartening is that Shanahan doesn’t believe that there is a prefect seat on the plane for surviving a crash.

…I ask Shanahan the question he gets asked at every cocktail party he’s been to in the past twenty years: Are your chances of surviving a crash better near the front or the back?  “That depends,” he say patiently, “on what kind of crash it’s going to be.”  I rephrase the question.  Given his choice of anywhere on the plane, where does he prefer to sit?

“First class.”

At least the guy has some taste when it comes to travel.  It is worth noting that in the earlier era of aviation the first class cabin frequently was at the rear of the plane but that was attributable to things like rear boarding entrances and a smoother and quieter ride well behind the engines.  He also seems rather realistic about the fact that, while planes could be made even safer than they are today, it probably isn’t worthwhile from a cost perspective, a view that I share.

There are a number of additional chapters about the spiritual and philosophical aspects of medical research.  People who want to study crucifixion or be crucified, people attempting head transplants and just how the armed forces justify using cadavers to test the mortality levels of various weapons are all covered. 

And it is all quite fascinating to read, even if you aren’t really all that morbid or insane.  But having a bit of those in you will help.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

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