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‘Stiff’ by Mary Roach #BookReview #ThrowbackThursday

Renee at It’s Book Talk began this meme to share old favourites and recommendations, and I discovered it through Between the Lines.

stiff

Waterstones   Amazon.co.uk

What happens to your body after you have died? Fertilizer? Crash Test Dummy? Human Dumpling? Ballistics Practise?

Life after death is not as simple as it looks. Mary Roach’s Stiff lifts the lid off what happens to our bodies once we have died. Bold, original and with a delightful eye for detail, Roach tells us everything we wanted to know about this new frontier in medical science.

Interweaving present-day explorations with a history of past attempts to study what it means to be human Stiff is a deliciously dark investigations for readers of popular science as well as fans of the macabre

I have a bit of a fascination with death but I’m not a morbid person. I just feel that it’s a normal part of life (after all, it happens to everyone) that we tend to ignore, or hide away, or pretend doesn’t happen. We don’t want to know the details, the realities. And I think that this reluctance to recognise death and its processes, the rituals around it, have made us less connected to it, and, in turn, more fearful.  We’ve made death something secret, unknown. This book lifts the lid on death, detailing practically everything that could happen to you once you’re dead, including unusual after-life occupations such as being a crash test dummy, becoming part of an exhibition, helping surgeons learn their art, helping scientists understand decomposition or, if you go the more traditional route, what happens in a cremation or what happens once you’ve been buried.

It sounds morbid, but it isn’t. Roach’s writing is funny, respectful, warm and informative. I don’t believe in a god, or a heaven or an afterlife – I’m very happy with this one, thank you very much. There’s nothing once you’re gone and it seems a terrible shame to me that bodies that could do so much good and help so much are literally allowed to go to waste. I’ve always made my feelings known to my family – researchers can have as much of me as they want. I don’t want a funeral or a grave that my children feel indebted to visit when I’m not even there and all they’re doing is making a crematorium owner very rich. How much better will it be if my no longer needed remains help find a cure for a disease, or help investigators to improve safety in transport. And what’s left I’d be happy to have made into compost (you can have this done you know!). Roach’s book details all of these options and more, with warmth and honesty.

For a book about death, it was weirdly uplifting, and life-affirming. All we have is the here and now, and death is a part of life. We are so uniformed; we make death into something horrific and other. But as Roach so clearly and entertainingly shows, it’s part of being human and it’s something we should know more about.

4.5 out of 5

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Mrs Blunden – a most unfortunate Basingstoke resident

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Basingstoke. A town known for many things – its roundabouts, its housing estates, and, more recently, its not so contrite local MP, Maria Miller. These seem to be the things that spring to mind if you question those who don’t know the town. They don’t often mention the beautiful surrounding countryside, the historic old town or the subject of the town’s most horrible, yet most gripping tale, the unfortunate Mrs Blunden.

This poor lady lived in the town in the seventeenth century, the wife of a successful local malt merchant. During the hot summer of 1674, her husband was away on business in London. One evening Mrs Blunden, by all accounts a rather large lady, was feeling unwell.  For some reason, no-one seems to know exactly why, she drank a huge quantity of poppy water acquired from a local apothecary. One account blames her maid, who gave her the water accidently when she asked for wine; other reports suggest that Mrs Blunden took the water as a curative. Whatever the reason, having drunk the water, she apparently dropped dead.

Her body was laid out, and a messenger was sent to her husband. He requested that she not be buried until he had returned home. However, due to the size of the woman, and the heat, it was feared that she would soon begin to smell. She was, therefore, placed in a coffin that was nailed shut.  She was then buried at the Liten burial ground near to the Holy Ghost Chapel.

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These burial grounds were used as a playground by boys attending the Queen’s school. Some of the boys thought they heard noises coming from the grave and went to tell the School Master. At first he didn’t believe them, but when other children also claimed to have heard noises, the grave was eventually opened. It was too late to do anything for the unfortunate woman. She had clearly been alive when she had been buried as her body was covered in self-inflicted wounds, caused by her struggles on regaining consciousness. This is terrible in itself, but the horror doesn’t stop there.

Mrs Blunden’s coffin was re-sealed and placed back in the grave to await the coroner who was due the following day. A guard was posted, but he must have been distracted, fallen asleep or left his post, for, when the grave was re-opened, poor Mrs Blunden was covered in fresh wounds. Her shroud was torn, her fingernails bloody and, some reports claim, her mouth bleeding, presumably from chewing at herself in her distress.

So the unlucky Mrs Blunden had the bad luck to be buried alive not once, but twice.

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The ruins of the Holy Ghost Chapel can still be visited today.