Friday, June 17, 2011

And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: A Review of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Title: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Author: Mary Roach
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Co. (2003)
Pages: 304 pages
How I Came By This Book: My friend, Becca, recommended this book to me last year and I just got around to grabbing it from my library.
Challenges: GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge

Synopsis: For two thousand years, cadavers--some willingly, some unwittingly--have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. They helped test France's first guillotines, answering the question, "Is the severed head aware of its circumstances, however momentarily?" They helped evaluate the army's new rifles in 1904, standing as targets before researchers' guns. They've 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, sundered way.

In this fascinating 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 at the University of Tennessee (a.k.a. the "Body Farm"), a plastic surgery practice lab, and a Scandinavian funeral directors' conference on the utopian future of human composting. In her droll, inimitable voice, Roach tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.

Review: When Becca suggested this book to me, I wondered about her sanity. A book about dead bodies just didn't seem like the kind of thing that would interest me. She assured me that it was both funny and fascinating, but I just kept putting off reading it. I'm not a squeamish person, nor am I afraid of dead bodies. It was just that I'm not really interested in biology, anatomy, funerary sciences, etc. Within the first few pages of reading this book, however, I didn't want to put it down.

Mary Roach is a fantastic writer. Her light-hearted, funny approach to what happens to us after we die is not only readable, it's also enjoyable. Stiff manages to take a rather serious, dry subject and turn it into the kind of book you want to make all of your friends read, no matter how uncomfortable they might be with it.

She is both respectful and irreverent and she treats her topic like a puzzle almost, putting each piece in one after the other to create a picture that is vivid and full. She takes the reader from plastic surgery practice to a body farm to automobile safety tests, travelling from the U.S. to China to Switzerland and back. There was never a dull moment in this book, nor were there any bits that made me feel uncomfortable. I'll admit to feeling queasy here or there but it was never more than a momentary lapse and it usually stemmed from Roach's analogies to food rather than from the subject matter.

There is quite a lot to absorb and learn in this book--science, history, ethics, etc. I love books that entertain while they inform and this is one of the best I've read in a really long time. It was also a strangely comforting book. In the last decade I've lost several people to death--an ex-girlfriend, my grandmother, a close friend and neighbor. This book, rather than make me feel sad or bring back bad memories, actually helped me feel better about my losses. It helped me to see what I already knew--death is a normal part of life that everyone must go through. It's the great equalizer. What's wonderful about the things Roach discusses is that there are ways to make sure that people can live on even in death (my favorite being the Swiss woman who has come up with a way to use human remains as fertilizer for trees and flowers).


Okay, really quick while we're on the subject, I want to implore those of you who have not signed up to be organ donors to do so. Even before I read this book, I'd been a huge proponent of organ donation. This book cemented my belief that it is imperative that people be willing to donate tissue, organs, and blood. All it takes is a little check mark on your license application and you can help save the lives of dozens of people even after you're gone.


Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised to find that all of my preconceived notions of this book were false. It wasn't depressing, it wasn't overly disgusting, it didn't make me think that Roach was a highly disturbed woman. In fact, it's made me want to read her other books. She just has this really great way of explaining things so that scientific jargon and ideas are easily understandable. She also has a great sense of humor without being patronizing, mean, or childish.

I know some of you have read this book and enjoyed it. I also know that there are others who have been curious about it but haven't gotten up the nerve to read it yet. I can't recommend this book highly enough. While some people might find themselves feeling slightly squicked out by some of the descriptions in the book, for the most part it's just a fun, interesting read that explores a topic that we're not often willing to talk about out loud. Stiff raises important questions and provides food for thought about what it means to be human.

I'm giving Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers 5 out of 5 Gabriels.



  1. Regarding the PSA, some people have legitimate reasons for not being organ donors. My husband and my mother are both unable to do so because of health issues they have that make their organs unwanted by the medical community. My step-father, for religious reasons, is not an organ donor. With that said, my children and I are all signed up to be organ donors and, barring any religious conversions of serious health complications, I'm willing to have any and all my bits and pieces used as needed.

    I've been avoiding this book for a long time although it's been recommended to me several times. I could add it to the books I should have read challenge but I already have such a pile of books for the challenge that one more may cause the whole thing to topple over. :)

  2. Sometimes I really do wonder about people. anyway, your review of the book definite provides a better outlook on the book. I've seen it as possible reads on other blogs but yours is the first review. I shall direct them to your review. I read your wild card wednesday and i shall be ready. Have a wonderful weekend.

  3. I must have a morbid curiosity because I wanted to read this as soon as I saw it (and I haven't got round to it just because there are so many other great books sat on my shelves).

    I can't give blood myself because I don't have enough to spare. They'd probably let me do it once and then add me on to the list of people that need medical attention afterwards and are advised not to do it again (I know a few people this has happened to).

  4. Satia: I'm aware of the moral and health reasons which bar people from organ donation and I in no way judge those who don't because of them. There are those, however, who could donate but who decide not to for other reasons. I've had conversations with people who say that they don't care how many people they could save, they don't want to do it. There are others who are afraid that if they're an organ donor, hospitals won't work to save them as much as if they weren't. There are a million reasons not to donate but there are only a few reasons that I find acceptable. Those who are religiously forbidden to do so or who have health problems are much different than those who are just being selfish or afraid.

    Sidne: Thanks for directing people here. I appreciate it. Glad my review gave you a better idea of what the book was about. :)

  5. Ellie: Just saw that you commented. Oops! I usually have a morbid curiosity, but I think losing my grandmother kind of turned me off of reading this for a while. Turns out I needn't have worried; nothing about this book brought up painful memories or anything. It was insanely fascinating, too, so I highly recommend it.

    I personally don't give blood because I'm morally opposed to the Red Cross' blatant homophobia. I would never tell someone else not to give blood, but you won't see me at a drive anytime soon. After I'm gone, however, I want to make sure that people have a second chance at life, so they can take out whatever they want.

  6. I didn't even know about that, really if they screen blood (which I sincerely hope they do) it doesn't matter where the blood comes from! The NHS (National Health Service) organises blood donations here and they take it from anyone healthy and willing. They do ask questions about unprotected sex and drug use but that's about it.

  7. @Gabe and Ellie, I remember when I last gave blood the little questionnaire made you tick yes or no for if you've ever had sex, if you've had unprotected sex, if you're homosexual or bisexual, if you've ever shared needles etc and the only ones which would disqualify you from being able to give blood was if you had shared needles (fair enough) or if you were homosexual.

    It's ridiculous that even if someone has had multiple partners and never used a condom or other protection they're happy to wait till the screening stages to find out it's contaminated or invalid. But someone who is healthy, uses condoms and has regular tests for STDs and aids can't donate their perfectly healthy blood simply because they choose to have sex with the same sex? What the what!

  8. What really gets to me about it is that the fastest growing populations in terms of HIV/AIDS is, sadly, young people, African Americans, and the elderly, usually straight. It's not a "gay" disease, it's an "anybody" disease. A good proportion of the gay community is monogamous and/or practices safe sex. Other sectors of society, the elderly especially, are not using condoms as much as they should and are getting infected. It's time for the Red Cross to throw out its policy, which I believe has contributed to some of the misinformation that's out there regarding both homosexuality and HIV/AIDS.

  9. It's the same here in Aus, the highest rates of HIV/AIDS are within the younger demographics, which just goes to show how stupid excluding only homosexuals from blood donation is. It's outdated, like so much of our society and in dire needs of a wake-up call

  10. Exactly. It's a sad fact, but people are always looking for someone to beat up on. If it's not African-Americans, its gays; if it's not them, it's the handicapped. Or women. Or Muslims. It sickens me to think that even our institutions are prejudiced.