This month’s book review is an overview of my favorite “dead body” books. Whether you are writing a mystery, suspense, action, or any sort of fiction, these are excellent tools for getting the details right, plus they make for terrific Halloween reading. Another way you can use these books is as a brainstorming tool. It’s amazing what paths of thinking and creativity will open for you as you turn the pages.
When you research with these books (as opposed to the web) no gruesome or sensationalistic photos will take you by surprise and keep you up nights. Both books are written and produced in a professional, respectful manner and are full of insights and inspiration to help your stories be realistic and believable.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Entertainment Weekly called Stiff “One of the funniest and most unusual books of the year…Gross, educational, and unexpectedly sidesplitting.” And it is. What a fun, sometimes shocking read. Author Mary Roach takes the approach that through the ages, cadavers have taught the human race wonderful things, and people who did nothing notable in their lives have been “immortalized in the pages of books and journals” upon death.
Beginning with stories from history, the author opens with tales of body snatching and instances of human dissection while anatomists tried to understand the body and its functioning. These stories are followed with a chapter on decay (Life After Death), a chapter on what happens to a person during impact (Dead Man Driving), one dedicated to what happens to passengers during a plane crash (Beyond the Black Box), the effect of bullets and bombs on a human being (The Cadaver Who Joined the Army), and my favorite chapter focusing on beating-heart cadavers, live burial, and the scientific search for the soul (How to Know if You’re Dead).
All the facts in the book are relayed in an entertaining way and focus on what scientists through time wanted to find out regarding death, stories of how research was done, specific discoveries and how they happened. The best part of the book (besides the insight into what happens to bodies) is that while a fascinating and entertaining read, the author never crosses the line into mean, cheap, or disrespectful.
Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? by Kenneth V. Iserson, M.D.
I became aware of this book during a holiday fair while talking to author Sara Rath (click on Sara’s name to go to her website to get a glimpse of this prolific author and her writing). Surrounded by Christmas carols, people in Santa hats and lots of good holiday cheer, the two of us found ourselves talking about…dead bodies, of course.
Death to Dust is pricey (around $50 on amazon) but worth every penny. Sara loaned the book to me, and after spending a few minutes reading, I decided I had to have my own copy. On the back cover the book proclaims that within the pages you’ll find “Everything you always wanted to know about corpses” and this statement is the truth. The book delves into what happens during embalming, cremation, autopsies, burials, and funerals; it takes a look at what various professionals in the business do including medical examiners, undertakers, embalmers, and funeral directors. Going even further, the book covers what happens during organ donation, cryonic suspension (freezing) and even explores different cultures with information about cannibalism, shrunken heads, and human sacrifice. Finally, the book details and discusses social, ethical, political, religious and environmental aspects surrounding death, burials and funerals. Even laws governing bodies are given some page-time. Like Stiff, this book is written in a way that makes it easy to follow and understand, and gives the reader a fascinating, entertaining book on what might otherwise be a grim and difficult subject.
If you have or are planning any dead bodies in your fiction, need some different ideas for brainstorming, or are just plain interested in what happens to our mortal shells once our souls leave residence, these books are for you.
Award-winning novelist Kathy Steffen teaches fiction writing and speaks at writing programs across the country. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, Between the Lines. Her books, FIRST THERE IS A RIVER, JASPER MOUNTAIN and THEATER OF ILLUSION are available online and at bookstores everywhere.
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