1. In her introduction to Stiff, Mary Roach remarks that "death makes us helplessly polite." Why is it that we're compelled to use polite language when discussing death? Why are we often afraid to discuss it in the way Roach has done here?
2. Roach discovered that students in anatomy classes tend not to enjoy touching and smelling cadavers, even though they relish the opportunity to study them. Does this surprise you? Why might someone want to work with cadavers?
3. Could one remain more psychologically and emotionally balanced in their dealings with cadavers by humanizing them, as Roach frequently does, or by objectifying them? Explain.
4. Roach describes the smell of a decomposing human: "It is dense and cloying, sweet but not flower-sweet. Halfway between rotting fruit and rotting meat." But modern embalming methods allow us to present odorless, good-looking corpses at funerals. Has modern mortuary science made death more aesthetically pleasing?
5. Dennis Shanahan, who investigated the grisly human wreckage of downed TWA Flight 800, told Roach that the hardest thing about examining Flight 800 was that most of the bodies were relatively whole. He said, "Intactness bothers me much more than the lack of it." Why might he feel this way? Do you agree or disagree?
6. Many research studies that make use of cadavers raise questions about maintaining the dignity of the deceased. For example, a ballistics study might involve decapitating a cadaver or shooting one in the face—all for the sake of gathering data to ensure that innocent civilians who are hit in the face with nonlethal bullets won't suffer disfiguring fractures. Do you think that the humanitarian benefits of experimenting on cadavers can outweigh any potential breach of respect for the dead? Why or why not?
7. The heart, cut from the chest, can keep beating on its own for as long as a minute or two. This, Roach says, reflects centuries of confusion over how exactly to define death. Have modern scientific experiments on cadavers helped us to pinpoint the precise moment when life ceases to exist and all that's left is a corpse? Explain.
8. Roach says, "On a rational level, most people are comfortable with the concept of brain death and organ donation. But on an emotional level, they may have a harder time accepting it." Some organ recipients even worry that they will take on certain characteristics of their donors. What might this say about how we link the physical human body to the human soul?
9. In Chapter 10, Roach takes us on a grand tour of cannibalism across cultures. She's compelled by the idea that economics accounts for why people throughout history have never dined regularly on each other. Humans, she says, turn out to be lousy livestock, because you have to give them more food to feed them than you'd gain in the end by eating them. How do you react to this idea?
10. In Chapter 11, Roach journeys to an island in Sweden, where a forty-seven-year-old biologist-entrepreneur has made a business of producing compost from cadavers. This business has major corporate backing and an international patent, and mortuary professionals in many countries, including the United States, are interested in representing the new technology. Do you think that the "human compost movement" could gain traction where you live?
11. Roach concludes that "it makes little sense to try to control what happens to your remains when you are no longer around to reap the joys or benefits of that control." Do you agree with her?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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