Review by Allison Bohac
“Are you dead or alive?”
The Undead opens with a question that seems like it should have an easy answer. But Teresi, a science writer, argues that in today’s age of beating-heart cadavers that can breathe, urinate and even give birth while legally dead, it can be hard to tell.
Historically, Egyptians and ancient Greeks considered a heartbeat to be the telltale indicator; Christian and Hebrew interpretations of the Bible pointed to breath. The Samburu people in Africa still contend that someone is not dead until hyenas will eat the body.
In the modern era, Teresi says, the need for organ donors has brought about a new kind of death: the “loss of personhood,” or brain death. Coma patients who require ventilators to breathe can be declared dead long before their hearts stop beating on the basis of simple, low-tech exams — a Q-tip touched to the surface of the eye, a splash of ice water in the ears, a gag reflex test.