In the United States we like to think of ourselves as unique individuals with something special about who we are. We like to see ourselves as separate entities that are differentiated from the rest of the world. There are ways in which this is true, but there are also ways in which we cannot separate ourselves so easily from the world around us. There are ways in which we are not so much our own thing, but a product of numerous other external things that drive our lives.
In the book Stiff, Mary Roach looks at how different cultures and societies around the planet approach dead bodies. She shows how similar many cultures are, but also highlights differences in practices and taboos related to the dead. She uses different examples to highlight the role of culture and expectations that shape what we see as normal and acceptable and what others see as normal and acceptable. Regarding these differences she writes, “we are all products of our upbringing, our culture, our need to conform.”
We are products. The culture and society determine what is possible for someone with our particular set of genes, skills, and aptitudes. Our upbringing infuses us with believes, perspectives, and self-interests from which we can never truly separate ourselves. Our culture reinforces beliefs, norms, expectations, and taboos. While we are individuals within these cultures, we never truly escape them, and we never truly become something separate from them. We are the sum of a great deal of factors that we cannot even count on their own.
[Author Note: This begins a short three post break in writing regarding homelessness for a few quotes and thoughts on books by Mary Roach. More to come from Roach after finishing some additional writing on homelessness and poverty.]
Mary Roach’s book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is an exploration into what happens to bodies donated for scientific research. In the book she meets with scientists, researchers, and academics who are working with human cadavers to make life better for those of us who are still living. It is a witty, humorous, yet altogether respectful exploration of the ways in which the human body has helped propel our species forward, even after the human life within the body has expired.
Regarding cadavers and what they have unlocked through sometimes gory (though today as considerate and respectful as possible) experiments, Roach writes the following:
“Cadavers are our superheroes: They brave fire without flinching, withstand falls from tall buildings and head-on car crashes into walls. You can fire a gun at them or run a speedboat over their legs, and it will not faze them. Their heads can be removed with no deleterious effect. They can be in six places at once. I take the Superman point of view: What a shame to waste these powers, to not use them for the betterment of humankind.”
The scientific study of cadavers can be off-putting, but it has been incredibly valuable for humanity across the globe. Cadavers have helped us understand basic anatomy, design safer cars, and ensure the safety of astronauts. Without cadavers many more people would have died in ill devised medical experiments and car crashes, and numerous live animals would have suffered as alternative test subjects. Cadavers perform miraculous jobs that living humans cannot perform, and for their service and sacrifices, we should all be grateful.