Peeling Back the Layers of Life: A Review of Body of Work

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is a very enlightening memoir, not only about anatomy, but about an obscure part of medicine: the history of dissection and the procural of cadavers. Montross takes us through her anatomy class where she must dissect a cadaver and reflects on how this disturbing and disorienting process impacts her relationship with the human body, medicine, and how she provides care to others. She explores the muddy moral waters of the end of life and what does it mean to be no longer alive or to be dead, and are those the same things? While this is at times a hard book to read, it is important to read. She details the process of cutting into a dead person, and while she is reverential towards her subject, the process is still a disturbing one. Through this she shows how dissection allows future doctors to not only learn the body, but confront the discomfort of handling bodies, both alive and dead, and how they develop “detached compassion” to best guide their patients to make tough decisions about their or a loved one’s health.

The discomfort not only comes from the process, but how cadavers have been (and in some places still are) procured. There have been many cultural taboos about disturbing the dead and most cultures are against using humans for dissection. Doctors and hospitals turned to unsavory methods to get their supply. Unsurprisingly, it was often the poor, criminals, and minorities who were preyed upon; mostly in the belief that their afterlife is not as important as rich white people’s. Montross also explores the paradox of belief surrounding dissections.

This is not a knee-slapper of a book, but it is very interesting to know how med students become doctors and what is asked of them. I appreciated Montross’s insights and connections to her own life and medicine’s history.



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