ABOUT STRANGE MUMMIES
The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
is a New Age book of the dead, but only partly a mummy
book. In this quirky, funny, and thoroughly enjoyable book, Roach
digs into the history of human remains (with great relish!) and
reports her findings. Not only does she
provide the facts about the use and abuse of human remains, Roach
does it with grace and wit as well. It is, as Roach writes in the
Introduction, "a book about notable achievements made while
dead...about the sometimes odd, often shocking, always compelling
things cadavers have done." Her work as a Salon.com writer
shows clearly throughout.
Here's what the book
covers, chapter by chapter:
head is a terrible thing to waste. The use of human
cadaver heads in a facial anatomy and face-life refresher
course. The second paragraph begins: "The heads have been
put in roasting pans...for the same reason that chickens are put
in roasting pans: to catch the drippings." An instructive
opening chapter, but not for the squeamish!
Crimes of Anatomy.
A visit to a gross anatomy lab and a historical review of human
dissection for anatomical study. The history begins with Ptolemy
I who sanctioned the dissection of executed criminals and
Herophilus, who not only dissected dead criminals but apparently
vivisected 600 live prisoners. The history of dissection reaches
its nadir in 18th and 19th Century Britain. In 1752, Britain
authorized the dissection of executed criminals rather than
gibbeting (that is, tarring the criminal's corpse and displaying
it in a gibbet, or iron cage). When the supply of executed
criminals couldn't keep up with the demand of anatomy labs,
criminal alternatives appeared (i.e., digging up the freshly
dead or murdering for anatomical profit--as was the case of
Scotland's notorious murdered Burke and Hare).
After Death. A look at human decay and the funeral
industry's attempts to arrest it. This chapter includes a
reeking visit to the University of Tennessee's Anthropological
Research Facility (which studies the stages of decay in human
corpses) and th San Francisco College of Mortuary Science (which
trains students to embalm). The chapter also includes a survey
of the life and work of Thomas Holmes, known as the Father of
Embalming (who reportedly chose not to be embalmed himself).
Man Driving. A visit to a human crash test dummy lab
in which adult cadavers are employed to study auto safety.
Engrossing and gross.
the Black Box. A discussion of airplane disasters and
the stories that the bodies of crash victims tell. This is a
CSI-type chapter which truly gives the finer details of crash
pathology. If you've always wondered what happens to the human
brain trapped in a burning airplane, this is the chapter you
will want to read.
Cadaver Who Joined the Army. The use of cadavers in
studying the effects of bullets on human anatomy. Yes, there
have been such studies--since about 1800. Included in this
chapter is information about why human cadavers are not used in
bomb research (though they have been used recently to test
footwear designed to protect personnel involved in clearing land
Cadaver. Crucifixion experiments in which corpses
were nailed to crosses to prove the authenticity of the Shroud
of Turin (Dr. Barbet conducted this experiment in 1931).
to Know If You're Dead. A look at a
"beating-heart cadaver"--that is, a person who has
been declared brain dead, on the way to having organs removed
for transplantation. The most fascinating part of this chapter
is a review of the attempts people have made to made certain
that the dead are truly dead (and not about to be buried alive).
a Head. Decapitation, reanimation, and the human head
transplant. Many have tried including the Freshman Jean Baptiste
Vincent Laborde in 1884 who used the heads of guillotined
prisoners. Americans (Guthrie in 1908 and White in the 1960s)
also tried, though they worked with dogs and monkeys.
Me. The mummy and cannibalism chapter. A cornucopia
of information beginning with mellification (human remains
steeped in honey and used as topical mummy medicine). Other
recipes for human mummy elixirs are given as well (Fecal Phosphorous
and Poor Sinner's Fat anyone?). Of course, the apparent need to
create fake mummies to fill the demand is covered. Another
section describes the use of blood (taken from corpses) and
transfused to humans (with success by, among other, Dr.
of the Fire, Into the Compost Bin. Tissue digestion
and human compost. This chapter discusses the latest trends (or
at least ideas) for the disposal of dead humans (burial is
expensive and wastes land and since cremation is uneconomical in
its use of fuel). One way is a "water reduction
machine"--which is more like a tissue digestion machine. It
stirs the body with water and lye and reduces it to a pile of
decollagenated bones (that easily crumble). An alternative is
the human composter, now in the works in Sweden, which breaks
the corpse into bits and composts it for use as garden
of the Author. Roach concludes with musing about her
All in all, the book is
informative and entertaining and provides the type of information
that many people spend a lifetime avoiding. 304 pages. Highly