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Book Review: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach

Everything you've ever wanted to know about decayed corpses, decapitation, dissection, and death.


Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

W.W. Norton & Company, 2003, 303 pages



For 2,000 years, cadavers -- some willingly, some unwittingly -- have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem.




Mary Roach is a smart-ass. In Packing for Mars, she asked NASA scientists about astronauts' masturbatory habits. In Stiff, she asks about farting corpses and human flesh dumplings. Roach is primarily a magazine journalist, and this book reads like an extended magazine article. It's light, entertaining, somewhat educational, not terribly sober, and a bit titillating -- in a completely non-sexual way unless you are deeply disturbed, and probably the one cadaver-related subject Roach doesn't tackle is necrophilia, which frankly surprises me since it's not like she seems to have any other boundaries about what she'll write about.

You can probably tell whether or not this is a book you want to read by looking at the Table of Contents:


  1. A Head Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Practicing surgery on the dead
  2. Crimes of Anatomy: Body snatching and other sordid tales from the dawn of human dissection
  3. Life After Death: On human decay and what can be done about it
  4. Dead Man Driving: Human crash test dummies and the ghastly, necessary science of impact tolerance
  5. Beyond the Black Box: When the bodies of the passengers must tell the story of a crash
  6. The Cadaver Who Joined the Army: The sticky ethics of bullets and bombs
  7. Holy Cadaver: The crucifixion experiments
  8. How to Know if You're Dead: Beating-heart cadavers, live burial, and the scientific search for the soul
  9. Just a Head: Decapitation, reanimation, and the human head transplant
  10. Eat Me: Medicinal cannibalism and the case of the human dumplings
  11. Out of the Fire, into the Compost Bin: And other new ways to end up
  12. Remains of the Author: Will she or won't she?


In other words, this is not a terribly scholarly book. Nor is it an expose. (Roach refers repeatedly to The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford's landmark 1963 expose of the American funeral industry.) However, it is informative, and covers just about everything you can imagine being done with corpses or that has been done with corpses. In the course of writing this book, Roach traveled all over the world, talking to Chinese mortuary directors and a Swedish environmentalist who advocates composting instead of cremation.

Stiff starts by covering the basics of human anatomy and what happens after you die - in other words, decomposition, and all the gunk under your skin and the gasses that will swell your gut when you croak. What forensic scientists can learn from bodies, how long it takes to rot, what morticians have to do to make a corpse presentable.

Then it's on to history lessons, with a focus on the most ghastly parts of it, of course. The English "Resurrectionist" trade, and all the unpleasant things done to corpses both before and after it occurred to people to pass laws about what was permissible.

Roach also talks about cannibalism, and introduced to me the term "taste cannibalism" (people who become cannibals because they like human flesh, as opposed to the usual cases that are the result of starvation, madness, or certain cultural practices). You'll be happy to know (or maybe not) that humans, like most non-herbivores, are a very inefficient food source since you have to feed them more than what you'll get out of them as food. There go all those horror movie plots involving aliens who want to farm humans; I guess they'll just have to use us as batteries instead.

Roach's voice suffuses the narrative, and while sometimes her wisecracks are amusing, mostly they're just kind of juvenile. There's also a sort of "Look at these weird things people in other parts of the world do!" tone to her discussion of funerary practices outside of Europe and North America. While researching the chapter on cannibalism, she came across a news story, purportedly from a Chinese newspaper, about a mortician who cut the buttocks off his corpses and gave them to his brother, a restaurant owner, who then used them for dumplings in his restaurant. Despite being justifiably skeptical, Roach actually traveled to the Chinese town where this supposedly took place, hired an interpreter/guide, and went to the mortuary to question the director. Unsurprisingly, no one in the town had ever heard of such a story, the newspaper the article supposedly came from did not exist, and the mortuary director was not amused at this American journalist who came to China to find out if there were Chinese morticians chopping up dead bodies to make dumplings. As excuses for visiting other countries for "research" go, this was kind of an assholish one.

However, there's still a lot of interesting stuff in the book. Roach examines the myth that a decapitated head remains conscious and aware of its surroundings for up to several minutes after it's decapitated - turns out this is not easy to absolutely disprove, since there's no way to ethically test the theory, and decapitations don't happen very often in controlled circumstances nowadays, but the scientific verdict seems to be that unconsciousness happens almost instantly. (Or maybe that's just what they want you to think...)

Roach also talks a lot about organ donations, transplants, and the use of brains, cadavers, and skeletons by medical students and for other scientific purposes, as well as some of the less scientific exhibitions in which they have been used. It's not news that an awful lot of vitally needed organs go to waste because of people's squeamishness about the disposition of their loved ones' corpses, but it turns out that it's always been difficult to get medical students enough exposure to actual cadavers to learn anatomy basics. Also, did you know that most actual human skeletons in medical schools came from India, before the Indian government banned their export? Nowadays, almost no school gets new skeletons, and plastic models have mostly replaced the real thing.

There are also several chapters about using corpses to study injuries -- car crashes, plane crashes, shootings, mines, and explosives. This is important research that has uncovered a lot of information about what happens to the human body under extreme trauma (and has led to a number of medical and technological improvements), but it's hard to make advances because while many people are willing to donate their loved ones to science for organ donation or medical school, it's harder to convince people to let you use Grandma to study what happens when you blow someone up or drive into a wall at 80 mph.

Besides being a somewhat funny if gruesome read, as well as containing a few actual nuggets of useful information here and there, Stiff is a great book for horror writers. If you want to write a story about disembodied brains, decapitated heads, transplanted organs taking over the host body (there is a section on head transplants), rotting, liquefying, maggot-eaten corpses, cannibalism, or anything else cadaver-related, this book will give you plenty of ideas!



Verdict: Not the most serious look at death and dying by a long shot, but very entertaining and informative, with perhaps more emphasis on the former than the latter. If you don't like smart-ass authors, irreverent attitudes regarding dead bodies, or general grossness, you might want to give this one a pass, but I liked it, even if I could have gone the rest of my life without hearing about garlic-fried placenta recipes.

Also by Mary Roach: My review of Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, mary roach, non-fiction, reviews, science
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