Vigor mortis

Times Staff Writer

It's a rare talent that can make people want to throw up and laugh at the same time.

Mary Roach is sprawled out on an embalming table, chattering about the unusual career opportunities available to dead people: human crash-test dummy, bulletproof vest guinea pig, plastic-injected art exhibit and Swedish tree compost.

"Death. It doesn't have to be boring," she writes in "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," her first book. Although most bodies donated to science end up in medical school dissection classes, some meet more exotic fates. "For 2,000 years, cadavers -- some willingly, some unwittingly -- have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings," she says.

So has Roach. Before she began fraternizing with the deceased, she wrestled alligators, sniffed armpits at a deodorant test lab and practiced yoga with the president of Mozambique. Her humorous essays on these and other adventures have appeared in Sports Illustrated, Discover, the Chicago Tribune and Reader's Digest, among others.

For "Stiff," she spent a year visiting bizarre laboratories, such as a Tennessee center where dead bodies are stuffed into car trunks or entombed in concrete to see how fast they decompose (so homicide investigators can establish time of death), and poring over obscure scientific papers, such as a 1905 French study on whether human heads remain conscious after being guillotined (Answer: Yes, for up to 30 seconds).

Despite the ghastly subject matter, the book is surprisingly funny. When explaining the process for embalming a person -- "opening up an artery, flushing the blood out with water and pumping in alcohol" -- Roach comments, "I've been to frat parties like that."

When she hangs out in a plastic-surgery practice lab with 40 severed heads draped in white cloths, she imagines herself "looking at rows of old men reclining in barber chairs with hot towels on their faces."

In a graphic chapter on how bodies decompose, she writes, "Let's not use the word 'maggot.' Let's use a pretty word. Let's use 'hacienda.' " And so she does.

And when a student mortician plunges a knife into a dead man's carotid artery, she observes: "Because no blood flows, it is easy to watch, easy to think of the action as simply something a man does on his job, like cutting roofing material or slicing foam core, rather than what it would more normally be: murder."

On a recent Thursday, Roach finds herself inside Cypress College's mortuary sciences lab, posing for photos on one of the gleaming white embalming tables. This is the sort of thing newspapers make you do when you write a funny book about dead people (another reporter dragged her to a cemetery).

So what kind of warped mind sets out to pen a book on 101 uses for cadavers?

Roach, a 44-year-old San Francisco resident, admits the idea sounds creepy ("We knew Mary was quirky, but now we're wondering if she's, you know, OK") but insists her motivation was just plain old curiosity. Citing the popularity of such TV shows as "Six Feet Under" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," she says, "I think most people find these things interesting. In fact, if you don't find the stuff in the book interesting, then I'd say maybe there's something wrong with you."

It was a random conversation on an airplane that inspired her to investigate the world of corpses. "Always ask the person sitting next to you what they do for a living," Roach says. "I get more stories that way."

On this flight, her seatmate was a veteran of the crash-test dummy industry, who talked about the use of cadavers in simulated car wrecks. Although a dummy can record how much force a crash unleashes against passengers, the information is useless unless scientists first know what kind of force a real body can endure.

Roach turned her encounter into a story for Salon.com and, eventually, a book proposal. Fifteen publishers nibbled before Norton snagged the rights in a bidding war.

Not bad for someone who launched her writing career at the San Francisco Zoological Society, penning press releases about elephant wart surgery. In 1986, she sold a humor piece on the IRS to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Next, she morphed into a magazine journalist, specializing in amusing first-person articles about bullfighting lessons, dining with sumo wrestlers and having scientists at a common-cold research lab drip a virus up her nose.

"I got a reputation as 'that woman in California who does stuff,' " she says.

Most of her writing is done inside a former dog and cat hospital near City Hall that now rents office space to authors and screenwriters ("There are lots of scratches on the doors," Roach says). Souvenirs from past stories -- including a killer bee from the first swarm to enter the U.S. and a jar of air from the South Pole -- decorate the room, she says.

"Stiff" continues this tradition of offbeat research. Some of the book's most entertaining tidbits lurk in footnotes. An asterisk next to "Thomas Holmes, the Father of Embalming" leads to a block of fine print that asks, "Does everything have a father?"

The footnote then reveals that a Web search for the phrase "the father of" found dads for vasectomy reversal, hillbilly jazz, snowmobiling, Japanese whiskey, the lobotomy, women's boxing, Pennsylvania ornithology, tornado research, natural hair-care products and the yellow school bus, to name a few.

Even the main text frequently detours into oddball tangents and trivia.

"I would stumble onto these wonderful nuggets, and even if they didn't exactly fit in anywhere, I couldn't bear not to put them in," Roach explains.

Among the gems:

* The gelatin used to mimic human flesh in gunshot tests is spiked with cinnamon to mask the unpleasant odor of its cow-bone and pig-hide ingredients.

* Ancient scientists and philosophers argued over whether the human soul was located in the heart, brain, pineal gland or "behind the eyebrows."

* Dogs trained to search for murder victims can pinpoint the location of a corpse at the bottom of a lake by sniffing the water's surface for gases that float up from the body.

* Embalming fluid manufacturers once sponsored best-preserved-body contests.

* When a heart is cut out of the chest, it keeps beating for one or two minutes. "Did Poe know this when he wrote 'The Tell-Tale Heart'?" Roach wonders.

* A cremation oven emits less pollution than a home fireplace.

* During the 1700s, Scottish anatomy classes were so desperate for cadavers that grave-robbing became common and some schools let students pay for tuition with corpses instead of cash.

Researching the book was eerie at times, Roach says. Strange images would occasionally pop into her mind. On her flight home from watching plastic surgeons practice face lifts and nose jobs on severed human heads, she'd stare at her fellow passengers, thinking: "I know what you'd look like as just a head."

As weird as the book gets, Roach manages to convey a sense of respect and appreciation for her subjects, explaining the role of cadavers in everything from heart-transplant surgery to the unraveling of what caused the crash of TWA Flight 800.

"Cadavers," she concludes, "are our superheroes."

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