Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

“The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you. ”


I love reading great books about uncommon and bizarre subjects, the weirder the better. In this sense, author Mary Roach might be my literary soul mate. She’s a science writer who tackles subjects like pooping in space and the weight of a human soul. In her book “Stiff-The Curious Life of Human Cadavers” Roach examines what really happens to a body that is donated to science. She watches as plastic surgeons perform face lifts on the decapitated heads, as med students practice on them, and as auto-makers use them as literal crash-test dummies to reduce the number of fatal car wrecks. She observes in the operating room as surgeons harvest the organs of a “beating heart” cadaver; that is a cadaver that is technically alive in the sense that he was still breathing but was declared brain-dead.

And those aren’t even the weird ones. Corpses have been nailed to crosses to try to prove the legitimacy of the Shroud of Turin. Decapitated heads have been poked and prodded to to “reanimate” them. And even though she doesn’t mention it in the book, we all learned from “Weekend at Bernies” how to use a stiff to score a free vacation.

Roach manages to write a book that is somehow both respectful and funny. But then she’ll examine the line between life and death, especially in the case of the beating heart cadaver. One of my favorite aspects of the book was the scientists that she interviewed. To my surprise, they all seemed to treat the corpses with respect, even as they struggled to imagine them as merely slabs of meat.

Some people may find parts of the book particularly stomach-churning (I decided to stop eating while she described scientists study the rate of decay in corpses) but it’s just an incredibly fascinating book that I would recommend to anyone, although don’t read it on the train like I did. People don’t seem to like that.

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