February 24, 2009
Would you accept a 6-month stint as lab manager for a facility that processes donated cadavers for medical research? Your primary responsibility is hacking up dead people.
According to Stiff, Mary Roach’s awesome study of the dead body and the various indignities it has suffered throughout history, donated cadavers are used to further the field of cosmetic surgery as well as the more altruistic field of pure medical research. This came as a bit of a shock to me, although it certainly makes sense. She describes a visit to a symposium for plastic surgeons in which they practice on unembalmed, severed heads from those who have donated their bodies to medical science. Having already been subjected to rhinoplasty earlier in the week (waste not, want not!), the heads rest in disposable roasting pans as surgeons attempt the newest techniques in face lifts. But as silly and surreal as it all is, there’s an ugly, gory fact lurking. Those clean, dressed heads? They don’t just come unstuck by themselves. Someone had to prep those. We learn that there is a lab manager, and that this lucky lady’s job is to decapitate the cadavers. Could I spend 6 months doing this? For $1,000,000, I think I would be willing to try. I’m sure that after a while, removing body parts from dead folks becomes just another vaguely unpleasant thing that you have to do at the office (and frankly, I’d probably prefer it to filing). Plus, if I could get over the (admittedly considerable) ick factor, then taking on this challenge would be not only financially rewarding, but spiritually rewarding as well. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Just think of the future generations who might benefit from my courageous work with body parts and tissues… And, uh, the vain older women who are relentless in their pursuit of the fountain of youth. They’d be mighty grateful, too!
I’d like to say yes, mostly because someone has to do the work that allows science and medicine to progress, and sure, it would be a good thing to contribute and all that stuff, but I just don’t think I could hack (har!) it. Stiff is one of my all time favorite books, and I think part of the reason is that I admire those who do the work I know I never could (and also because death is really fascinating. I’m goth like that). Maybe I’d give it a shot, but I don’t think I’d last very long. Even those who love this sort of work – those who enthusiastically enter the field of cadaver work – have problems dealing with the humanity of corpses. In fact, in one chapter, Roach describes how the hands and heads of cadavers used in car crash tests are covered in huge sock-like mitts. Why? Because the living humans who work with the dead find it difficult to look at these unique features on a corpse and not feel some sadness as they send it hurtling toward a brick wall at 150 miles per hour. If those who actually longed to enter the field have a hard time, I doubt there’s much hope for me. And while you don’t have to be a scientist to get the (kind of simple) job of chopping off heads and putting them in pans, I’ll pass either way.