COLLINS ON CULTURE

Published: 03/02/2005, Volume II4, No. 5941 Page 38

I wish to achieve immortality. Not through my work or children, or some wellaimed legacy, but by not dying.

But for those of you with a more likely future, a remarkable book found its way into my stocking this Christmas, Stiff: the curious lives of human cadavers . In it, journalist Mary Roach irreverently details the various options for the dead. Not death, or dying, for death and dying are profound and moving, but what can happen to our remains post mortem.

This is not a book for the sensitive. It is also not a book for meal times.

Unwittingly I opened chapter one over breakfast. It describes an anatomy lesson involving 40 heads, severed at chin-level, laid out for a class on roasting pans and it quite put me off my Special K.

The chapter on decomposition is compulsively unappealing. There is a lively description of a US research facility that leaves cadavers out in the open in various states of undress to see what happens to them. Even though a high wall encloses the area, the stench ensures that you can always find a space in the car park next door.

Similarly there are gruesome but fantastic chapters on how cadavers sometimes replace crash-test dummies, and what 'human wreckage' can tell us about aircraft disasters. These chapters have undermined my desire for immortality, as the bodies used in crash tests, or recovered from the wreckage of aircraft, certainly save life and limb on a scale to which I only aspire in my most heroic fantasies.

The end of the book covers some rather eccentric alternatives to tired-old burial and cremation - including a version of composting, as well as plastination, demonstrated in the Body Worlds exhibition.

So if my longer-term plan doesn't come off, Stiff has provided me with a number of options, which I shall consider in a leisurely manner over the intervening decades.

Steve Collins is director of strategy development at Surrey and Sussex Hospitals trust. Stiff is published by Penguin,£7.99.