BOOK REVIEW: Stiff – The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

First – don’t let the title scare you from reading this review, or reading this book!  Yes, any piece discussing corpses is going to raise a few eyebrows.  Or possibly bile.

But, as I explain later, Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers is worth reading.

Second – My Dad has a slight obsession with death.  I kinda see where he’s coming from, having lost the love of his life & the mother of his children, in addition to the standard aging process.

So, this book – like one of my first book reviews, Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die by Michael Largo – were “borrowed” from his book shelves. 

I’m not denying I have a morbid side too.  I’m sure my own preferences are somewhat colored by my own experiences with death.  Not to mention my Dad’s “sunny” disposition.

& that’s where I got this book! 

Unfortunately, Dad also has a slight obsession with highlighting his books.  It’s one of my big pet peeves!  I feel it doesn’t give me the chance to determine what I think is important.  The highlighted passages affect my reading of them.

Another book that’s hard to spoil.  However, it may be a bit “icky” below.

First thing about this book is its humor!  I know, it’s hard to imagine making a book about cadavers funny, but Mary Roach somehow does it with ease.

Roach worked as a freelance copywriter (a woman after my own heart!) at the start of her career.  She then got to write press releases for the San Francisco Zoological Society. 

That may have been the start of her scientific curiosity, which shows in Stiff & her other titles.  Her other books include Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex & Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.

Roach explains the different ways people can keep helping others after their death.  Many of the chapters deal with cadavers donated to scientific research:

  • Gross anatomy subjects for soon-to-be doctors
  • Crash test experiment subjects (so scientists can determine force necessary to break bones, which they then input into dummies’ sensors)
  • Determining the cause(s) of airplane crashes with passenger remains
  • Learning about the effectiveness of bullets

She also discusses the disposal of our remains when our loved ones finally lay us to rest.  Her discussion of the environmental impact of cadaver disposal made me want to learn more.

Over & over, Roach touches on the very real taboo of dealing with, experimenting on, & even practicing medicine on the dead.  It gave me a lot to think about – the idea that a person is still the same when their essence leaves them seems silly, but I know it’s true.  Even for me.

Despite having been a professional writer for at least 8 years before this book’s publication in 2003, despite having it proofread & a “real publisher,” I found a typo in Stiff

On page 150, Roach writes “families who had made piece with the decision to donate” instead of “families who had made peace with the decision to donate.”  I looked – it didn’t seem to be a delicate attempt at humor.

That just goes to show us all that even “professional” authors, with paid copyediting services & numerous proofreaders can make a mistake.  We all need to stop beating ourselves up when we err in our writing.

Final Score:

4 out of 5 stars!  Science usually isn’t my area of interest.  But Mary Roach makes it interesting & it’s not as icky as it first seems. 

She made me think about what I want to do with my remains when I go.  I don’t want to pollute the air, nor do I want to take up 6+ feet of earth. 

Unfortunately, plans for developing human composting stall because, well, that pesky idea of “desecration.”

Still… I’d like for my remains to further others’ lives.  Either through science or organ donation.  Then, maybe, there’ll be so little of me left that I’ll only take up a shoebox!

What we do with our dead has always been a touchy subject. We place a lot of significance on the remains of a person who is no longer with us. But, without those remains, we may find ourselves stymied in science, self-preservation, & research.

In the end, what’s more important?


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