Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What's that you say? A poet writing about death? Whoever heard of such a thing?

There was a time in my life when I could not have stomached the idea of donating my body to science. When I learned that the heads of cadavers are sometimes used in crash tests I could not help but picture those heads bearing the faces of the people I love. The thought horrified me. I was, you could say, against it.

I have, over the years, changed my tune and after reading Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross I am, in fact, more inclined than ever to donate my body after I die. I am now at a place in my life where I think of the research that may be done with me as something that could potentially help people who are still living, whether the result is aiding a med student's education or helping to make cars that better withstand impact.

Montross, I should note, is a poet. She graduated from the University of Michigan MFA program just as I did, albeit years earlier. Afterwards she headed to med school to become a doctor. The combination of these two professions means that Body of Work is a beautifully written book. Montross's prose is quite lovely and she treats her subject matter with respect and awe.

Perhaps it is because I have read several books on death and what happens after one dies, including Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (Roach, by the way, reviewed Body of Work in the New York Times), I found myself impatient with Montross's long sections outlining the history of dissection. Granted, including them makes perfect sense, but reading them was often tedious.

Montross is at her best when she's writing about relationships. Unfortunately, the only relationship she spends an ample amount of time on is her relationship with Eve, the cadaver she's dissecting in anatomy lab. It's hard to forge a connection with a dead stranger. As a result the bulk of the book is spent inside Montross's head and her musings begin to repeat themselves and get, well, boring.

That said, if I indeed do donate my body to research and I end up on a metal table in an anatomy lab, I most certainly hope that I get at least one student as respectful and introspective as Montross. And I hope that her book inspires people on the fence about donating their bodies or organs to do so.

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