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TRBQ Podcast #14 — Take My Corpse, Please

Mary Roach wants you to give yourself away. Not yet, though. After you’re dead. She wrote a book called “Stiff,” in which she details what has happened over the years to bodies that were donated—willingly or unwillingly—to science.

“I think that, for many people, does take the edge off it,” Roach says. “You know there is some good coming from something that’s otherwise kind of a bummer.”

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In “Stiff,” Roach describes unusual and unexpected uses of dead bodies—in great detail. She says for this reason, she was afraid the book would discourage people from whole-body donation.

“Like, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to cut off my arm and use it over here in the test of a car window? And you’re going to take my head to drop it down here to look at skull fractures?’” she says.

But Roach says she saw the opposite result. She received many inquiries from readers who wanted to donate their bodies.

That, she thinks, can make for a “slightly better death.”

Although the idea of doing some good after you’re gone might be cathartic, there are many reasons people hesitate.

Often, Roach says, religion plays a role. Some people feel that they will need their body in tact for the afterlife. Roach says this was the case with one friend.

“On his driver’s license, there was a little tiny line where you could specify what parts,” she says. “He said, ‘Anything below the neck. I don’t want them messing with my eyes. I don’t want to look bad.’”

Mary Roach

Mary Roach on the stage at TED in 2009. (Photo by Bill Holsinger-Robinson)

Roach says another reason might be the lack of control. She often hears from people who want to specify what their body will be used for – only for cancer research, for example. But Roach says this is impossible because no one knows what kind of medical research will be going on when they die.

“I always tell people it can’t hurt to make a request,” Roach says, “but you don’t get to control that. And also, P.S., you won’t care because you’re gone.”

That fear of losing control may be a form of denial, but Roach thinks there’s something else to it.

“It’s also wanting to still be there in a way,” she says. “I think it’s impossible to envision a world without us.”

Roach acknowledges that she has struggled with this, too. Her vision of her post-death-life: being a skeleton in an anatomy lab.

“I had this image of myself and my interactions with the students,” she says. “It’s totally irrational, and I think it is an inability to wrap one’s mind around not being here at all, ever, to anybody.”

Aside from the educational skeleton idea, Roach doesn’t have a firm plan for what will happen to her body. She says she got donor forms from Stanford and UCSF in roughly 2004, a year after “Stiff” came out.

“I had those forms sitting around for a long time,” she says. “I don’t know where they went and I never signed them.”

Roach says it’s still her vague intent to donate her body for medical research. But she also has a “romantic notion” of her husband scattering her ashes on a bluff overlooking the ocean.

“I’m playing both sides of the fence,” she says. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

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