Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Date Thu, July 13 2017

Leave it to me to read a book about cadavers. Actually, I think everyone should read this book (at least, the people who might find interesting and enlightening), so I’ll read it and let you know what I liked about it.

First, a little background. Mary Roach is a journalist and science educator who has been on my radar for over a decade. I first read one of her pieces in a Best Sex Writing book. I’ve also seen her TED talk in which she talks about a pig’s 30-minute orgasm. Ring any bells?

Roach has also written a number of books, some of which are so popular that they’ve been on my library ebook hold list for 9 months. I was pretty excited when Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers finally became available, and you better believe I’m anxiously waiting for the next book from her.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. I knew that I was a fan of Mary Roach and was sure she would teach me something, but I knew very little about cadavers. I also knew that I wasn’t necessarily squeamish about this sort of thing, either morally/spiritually or in terms of disgust. If you are, then I am not sure I would recommend Stiff to you. But if you like to learn, have a tough stomach, like learning about science and want to discover something more about a topic that isn’t readily spoken of, then I would recommend Stiff.

The basic premise of Stiff is Roach contacting all sorts of people and organizations to learn about the options for her own body once she passes on. She talks to researchers, students and other professionals around the world, ostensibly knocking options off her list because of personal preference (or because it isn’t an option at all in modern times).

As the reader follows Mary on her journey, we discover a myriad of “uses” for cadavers and their parts and learn a little more about the process. Roach discusses everything from brain death (and the historic definitions of death) and organ donation to body farms to using human skeletons (in short: it’s no longer done; everything is plastic), using bodies to practice surgery, for ballistics tests and to perform auto collision experiments (a system that’s in dire need of donated bodies).

Roach’s journey comes near the end as she discusses one possible future of body treatment after death, composting, with a Swedish businesswoman who is intent on making it come to fruition. It’s been over a decade since Roach penned Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and this is still not something that’s available, unfortunately.

The book ties up with the reminder that when you are dead, your body is no longer you. It’s simply your body (as we discovered earlier that the author felt after her own mom’s passing), and you retain no rights to what happens. Sometimes our loved ones must simply do what they can to cope (again, Roach discusses how her mother coped with her father’s death and body).

Through her personal anecdotes and humor, Roach easily brings a touch of personality and perhaps lightness to a subject that is underappreciated and sometimes still taboo. It’s easy to read the words she writes in this style. I am looking forward to reading the next Roach book on my pile.

When it comes to this subject matter, in particular, I found myself inspired to see what I could do with my own body. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers certainly gave me something to chew on, and I definitely recommend it!

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