Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
by Mary Roach
Penguin Books 2003
I have come rather late to reading this book; it was published way back in 2003. It was recommended to me by a friend, who knew that it would interest me as a researcher of 19th century Egyptian mummies and the strange uses they were subjected to. She was not wrong – I found it immensely readable and couldn’t put it down. Stiff is an unlikely compelling book about what happens to our bodies when we die. For thousands of years corpses have been subjected to numerous uses, be it for safety experiments such as reducing the impact of car crashes, used as fertilizer (yes…really!), medical cures (spoiler: eating human remains was one method of “curing” illnesses), or for scientific studies to name just a few. Mary Roach’s book covers them all with a bold, curious and at times witty, journey into this largely unspoken world.
Television shows such as C.S.I., Silent Witness and Six Feet Under, give us glimpses into autopsies and funeral preparation, but there is so much more to know about the fate of bodies once the people they once were have gone. Roach covers them all, seeking interviews with people engaged in these fields, and not being afraid to ask questions that we all secretly want to ask. It is a well-researched book whose chapters cover a wide range of areas such as using human remains in surgery, testing injury tolerance, there is a discussion on the history of body snatching and information on how throughout the centuries dead bodies have been used for the advancement of medical science. There is a chapter covering the use of remains to determine the authenticity of the Turin Shroud. Human decay is also covered, as is a captivating discussion on the moral argument of when death occurs and in what part of the body the soul is seated. Roach also looks at what it means to donate your body to science and where you may eventually end up. Her marvelous footnotes add to the narrative, providing fascinating (and often funny but respectful) asides.
Roach can often be colourful with her descriptions and her style may be somewhat flippant for some readers. Also Stiff pulls no punches and those of a delicate stomach may wish to veto it on these grounds. I however found it fascinating – it made me laugh (unusually, given the subject matter!), made me angry (experiments on animals strangely enough) and gave me plenty of food for thought, especially as to how I want my own body to be disposed of. The book gives a unique approach to talking about issues that surround the subject of death and Roach really touches on what makes us human. Ultimately Stiff leads you to ponder over the human race’s often-irrational attachment to the physical self.
Mary Roach has written six books including Stiff:
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005) (published in some markets as Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife)
My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places