What does the embalming process look like? How do forensic scientists bring killers to justice? If I donate my body to science, what experiments might a researcher conduct on my remains?
These killer books stare death in the face, offering answers to questions many readers are too afraid to ask.
1. DEATH’S ACRE: INSIDE THE LEGENDARY FORENSIC LAB THE BODY FARM WHERE THE DEAD DO TELL TALES, BY DR. BILL BASS & JON JEFFERSON
Spanning two acres and containing 1,300 human skeletons in various states of decay, the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility—also known as the Body Farm—was the first outdoor forensic research center in the world. This book penned by the man behind the facility is as close as you’ll come to a tour. Follow Dr. Bass as he revisits his most bizarre cases, takes you through the forensic process, and describes the grisly details of human decomposition.
2. STIFF: THE CURIOUS LIVES OF HUMAN CADAVERS, BY MARY ROACH
Roach’s survey of the posthumous body opens with this intriguing fact: “The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken [.]” It’s a good indicator of what’s to come. Both humorous and informative, Stiff invites you to explore the 2,000-year history of the living and their dead, from medical experiments and plastic surgery seminars to transportation safety researchers in need of human crash-test dummies.
3. WORKING STIFF: TWO YEARS, 262 BODIES, AND THE MAKING OF A MEDICAL EXAMINER, BY JUDY MELINEK, M.D. & T.J. MITCHELL
Just a day in the life of New York City forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek would be fascinating. This memoir, written with her husband, treats you to two years of her medical examiner training—the autopsies, the death scenes, the graphic details of sights and smells, and a powerful account of the recovery effort after 9/11.
4. DOES THIS MEAN YOU’LL SEE ME NAKED?: FIELD NOTES FROM A FUNERAL DIRECTOR, BY ROBERT WEBSTER
Funeral director Robert Webster has seen it all during his 30 years as a funeral director—from keepsakes buried with the deceased (fishing rods, Playboy magazines, recently-euthanized pets) to the matter that bodies leave behind (blood, fecal matter). In this fascinating memoir, Webster offers a revealing glimpse into his life among the dead, answering questions about embalming, cremation, and the business of burials.
5. SPOOK: SCIENCE TACKLES THE AFTERLIFE, BY MARY ROACH
Can we measure the soul in ounces? Can we record the sounds that spirits make? Roach continues to indulge her morbid curiosity with Spook, focusing this time on the soul, not the cadaver. As Roach writes in her introduction, “This is a book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and in an afterlife for it to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith.” Instead of faith, Roach relies on scientists, engineers, mediums, and psychics eager to prove—or disprove—life after death.
Cover of Stiff: W.W. Norton & Company; Cover of Death's Acre: Berkley; Cover of Stiff: W.W. Norton & Company; Cover of Working Stiff: Scribner; Cover of Does This Mean You'll See Me Naked?: Sourcebooks; Cover of Spook: W. W. Norton & Company