Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
I feel like I should start this entry with the disclaimer instead of ending with it. Yes, it’s about cadavers. Yes, if you’re really sensitive about what happens to dead bodies you probably shouldn’t read it. Yes, if you think bodies should always be handled reverently, this isn’t the book for you.
It’s not that they’re intentionally treating the bodies in a irreverent manner, but they’re being used. In lots of unexpected ways. Roach discusses some of the assorted ways cadavers have been used in the past, and how they continue to be used today – by forensic scientists researching rates of decomposition at a body farm in Tennessee, by vehicle safety testers examining how effective seat belts and air bags and all those other safety measures we now take for granted actually are. (Those crash test dummies can do a lot, but they can’t do everything; if nothing else they have to have cadavers to initially know the “settings” if you will that the dummies then measure.)
Roach manages to balance a sympathetic and respectful approach to the individuals who donate their bodies to science (in all its various iterations), with humor and wit as to what actually happens. It keeps the book from being too somber, and with what could be such a morbid topic, that’s quite an achievement.
Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers—some willingly, some unwittingly—have been involved in science’s boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. They’ve tested France’s first guillotines, ridden the NASA Space Shuttle, been crucified in a Parisian laboratory to test the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, and helped solve the mystery of TWA Flight 800. For every new surgical procedure, from heart transplants to gender reassignment surgery, cadavers have been there alongside surgeons, making history in their quiet way.
In this fascinating, ennobling account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries—from the anatomy labs and human-sourced pharmacies of medieval and nineteenth-century Europe to a human decay research facility in Tennessee, to a plastic surgery practice lab, to a Scandinavian funeral directors’ conference on human composting. In her droll, inimitable voice, Roach tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.
Roach has written several other nonfiction books, although Stiff was by far my favorite. They include:
- Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
- Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
- Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (I haven’t read this one).
To see all the books featured in 31 Days of Great Nonfiction Reads, go to the series page.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for supporting The Deliberate Reader!