Title: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Author: Mary Roach
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).
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT:
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.
END OF PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT
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.