Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers - Mary Roach

A staple of Judeo-Christian books is a lovely, bittersweet scene in which one of the characters says that “Death is but the beginning” or “Death is but the next great adventure.” The statement is factual, at least in the case of the body. Stiff details some of these posthumous adventures, which can include everything from bloat and rot after the embalming fluids wear off (they're injected by slitting the carotid, by the way), to acting as a test dummy for motor airbag tests, to being nailed to a cross in an attempt to judge the crucifixion positional accuracy of the Shroud of Turin.


Mary Roach details these adventures with wit and bonhomie, starting with the origins of anatomists and resurrectionists and ending with some of the new and up-and-coming ways to dispose of a cadaver. The book is more about entertainment than information; Roach skims over a variety of topics, including resurrectionists, body-farms for the study of human decay, the medical school cadavers, brain death, and some new proposed disposal methods that include everything from freeze-drying to liquefication. The book is well-researched, but superficial. Roach is an admirable journalist: in most of her stories, she attempted to find and speak with experts, giving her book an additional authority and personality. Roach doesn’t go into any topic with any depth, but instead skips readily from topic to topic, focusing on the most sensational, grotesque, and story-worthy details. Her segues between the topics are often rather contrived, but oddly amusing for their sheer artificiality. Roach is irreverent and casual, and in some ways reveals as much about herself as the various lives-after-death of the stiffs. Take her discussion of the early beliefs about the location of the soul in the body:

“With the rise of classical Greece, the soul debate evolved into the more familiar heart-versus-brain, the liver having been demoted to an accessory role. We are fortunate that this is so, for we would otherwise have been faced with Celine Dion singing "My Liver Belongs to You" and movie houses playing The Liver Is a Lonely Hunter. Every Spanish love song that contains the word corazon, which is all of them, would contain the somewhat less lilting higado, and bumper stickers would proclaim, "I [liver symbol] my Pekingese.”


This book probably isn’t for everyone; Roach revels in irreverence and in highlighting the absurdity of the corpses she encountered. This didn’t bother me; personally, I don’t care what someone does with my body-- whether I am simply gone, become one with the earth, or am sweltering away in Hell, I definitely won’t be using it any more. I’d much prefer that it get utilized rather than simply go to waste. After all, I send my used clothes to the Goodwill and my used books to the library, and I don’t see why my body should be much different. It’s not like I’m going to want it back, so I don’t care if someone uses it to test cars or bulletproof vests or even uses it to measure decay levels on murder scenes. If you are more sensitive to the sanctity of the cadaver, this is not the book for you. Roach certainly does her best to find the grossest, most disturbing, most peculiar, and above all, most amusing uses of a corpse that could be imagined. As she says,

“No matter what you choose to do with your body when you die, it won't, ultimately, be very appealing. If you are inclined to donate yourself to science, you should not let images of dissection or dismemberment put you off. They are no more or less gruesome, in my opinion, than ordinary decay or the sewing shut of your jaws via your nostrils for a funeral viewing.”