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Mary Roach – Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

August 23, 2010

97. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (2003)

Length: 304 pages

Genre: Non-Fiction

Started / Finished: 15 August 2010

Where did it come from? Bookmooch
Why do I have it? I’d seen it talked about quite a bit beforehand, but it went on my wishlist pretty soon after finishing Bonk.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 12 January 2009.

Roach makes being dead
more funny – and useful – than
I’d thought possible.

Summary: Stiff is a look at dead people. Not a biography or a history, but instead a book that examine the various fates of human cadavers. Far from what you might think, cadavers contribute quite a bit to society, from training future doctors to assessing the effectiveness of seatbelts to determining the cause of airplane crashes to assisting forensics experts determine time of death. Roach also devotes chapters to some of the stranger fates of human remains: medical cannibalism, the determination of the anatomical details of the crucifixion, and the science of decapitation and reanimation. Finally, Roach looks in detail at the realities of some of the traditional ways of dealing with corpses (burial, cremation), and the prospects of some newly-developed technologies for making yourself useful, even after death.

Review: Stiff is Mary Roach’s first book, and as such, is probably most people’s introduction to her work. I, however, came at things somewhat backwards: I’ve read Roach’s other three books, while leaving Stiff sitting unread on my shelf. The was no particular reason for this, other than the vagaries of timing of when I could acquire the books, and what I was in the mood for when I picked them up, but it’s given me somewhat of an unusual perspective on her earliest work. It’s interesting to see the seeds of her later works in this book; almost the entirety of the chapter “How to Know if You’re Dead” is repeated and expanded upon in Spook, we revisit the crash-test corpses again in Packing for Mars, and even the sex-in-an-MRI-machine from Bonk grew out of a footnoted mention here.

After reading the rest of Roach’s works, I’d developed a good sense of her style: brashly inquisitive journalism into the absurdities and not-often-thought-about aspects of the science of human life, coupled with funny, tangent-filled, and snarky writing. While Stiff certainly stays true to this style, a few things surprised me. First, it wasn’t nearly as irreverent as I was expecting. Roach points out in the introduction that this book isn’t about people dying (which is “sad and profound”), it’s about what happens to the physical matter that we leave behind after we die (which, as she rightly points out, is absurd and frequently amusing). However, despite this assertion, Roach is quite respectful throughout the book (occasionally even venturing into seriousness), both towards the people whose mortal remains are being used, and towards the living people who are doing the using.

I was also sort of surprised at how removed Roach seemed for a lot of the book. In her other books, it seems like she always wants to be right in the thick of the action, pestering researchers until they let her ride the Vomit Comet or have sex with her husband inside an MRI machine (…in the name of science, of course). In Stiff, however, she seems pretty content to hang back at a comfortable distance, even declining several offers to get more up-close-and-personal with the research. (I almost said “immersed in the research,” but when the topic at hand is corpses, that is a really unfortunate turn of phrase. On a related tip, learn from my mistake: I would recommend not reading the chapter on tissue decay right before you sit down to a meal.) Whether that’s out of respect or based on a lingering uncomfortableness about working with cadavers is unclear, but on the whole, Roach does an excellent job of cutting through the ookiness and taboo nature of her topic without trivializing or dismissing it entirely.

In any case, I was entirely fascinated by this book, tearing through it in a single sitting (something that’s almost unheard of for non-fiction). Not only was I engaged and entertained, but I also learned a whole lot of new trivia, and now have a much clearer idea of the various options for what might happen to my body once I no longer need it. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: While there are certainly some parts that might be disturbing to the squeamish, I think Roach did an excellent job of balancing humor and respect in approaching a topic that no one wants to think about, but that will eventually happen to all of us, and I’d recommend this book pretty broadly.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Books I Done Read, Bookshelves of Doom, Confessions of a Bibliophile, Lynne’s Book Reviews, Reading Comes from Writing, Rebecca Reads, Sophisticated Dorkiness,
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Lines: 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.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 67: “We pass a woman whose sizable breasts have decomposed, leaving only the skins, like flattened bota bags upon her chest.” – a wine bag of Spain made of untanned goatskin and usually holding 1–2 liters.
  • p. 175: “This implies that most women in Hippocrates’ day never went to the gyno. Given that the Hippocratic gynecological cabinet included cow-dung pessaries and fumigation materials “of heavy and foul smell” – not to mention rectal speculums – they were probably better off.” – a vaginal suppository.
  • p. 203: “Within minutes of its arrival in the van, Gamahut’s head was installed in a styptic-lined container and the men set to work, drilling holes in the skull and inserting needles into various regions of the brain to see if they could coax any activity out of the criminal’s moribund nervous system.” – Tending to check bleeding by contracting the tissues or blood vessels; hemostatic.

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. August 23, 2010 9:23 am

    Sex in an MRI machine? I don’t watch House anymore, but I’m pretty sure that would result in instant death on that show.

    I need to read Mary Roach; I know Spook is not for me (it’ll just freak me out), and Bonk just doesn’t interest me, so it’s either this or Packing for Mars. Which would you suggest to start with for her?

    • August 25, 2010 9:26 am

      Omni – I really didn’t think Spook was scary at all, but to each their own. I liked this one a little bit better than Packing for Mars, but they’re both good; I think where you should start depends on whether you think cadaver research or space travel sounds more inherently interesting.

    • Winter Marie permalink
      June 7, 2013 10:05 am

      I would say Stiff is one of the best books to start with Mary If you don’t wanna read Bonk.

  2. August 23, 2010 11:31 am

    I am also curious where you’d suggest to start with Mary Roach. All her books sound interesting to me, but I can’t decide which to pick up first.

    • August 25, 2010 9:28 am

      Jenny – If they all sound interesting, then I don’t think it matters where you start. I liked Bonk the best, but I think that’s just because it’s closest to my own area of research. Spook‘s a little more uneven than the other books, but really there’s not much of a margin to choose between them.

  3. August 23, 2010 12:03 pm

    I love Mary Roach’s tone of voice and dedication to interesting subjects. Glad to see another fan.

    • August 25, 2010 9:29 am

      Trisha – Between her and Victoria Finlay I’ve learned about all sorts of things I never would have thought I was interested in!

  4. August 23, 2010 3:24 pm

    I’m sure this is well written, but I don’t think this is the book for me – just thinking about it makes me squeamish.

    • August 25, 2010 9:29 am

      bermudaonion – Ah, probably not, then, although there were only one or two chapters I would actively describe as gross.

  5. August 23, 2010 6:21 pm

    I have a completely morbid fascination with death, so I read this one a few years ago when I first heard of it. It was definitely my favorite of Roach’s books, but that may only be due to the subject matter.

    • August 25, 2010 9:30 am

      Lola – I think that’s probably the way of things… Bonk‘s my favorite, and I’m sure that’s because of the subject matter.

  6. August 23, 2010 7:22 pm

    Medical cannibalism? Hmm…

    • August 25, 2010 9:31 am

      charley – Apparently mummies-as-medicine is (or was until recently) a pretty active trade in some cultures.

  7. August 26, 2010 4:42 pm

    I have had Mary Roach on my tbr forever. It’s about time I start – I think I would love ALL of her books.

    Also, if you like wine, I suggest you try the Bota brand of boxed wine. It’s good. :)

    • August 30, 2010 11:50 am

      Care – I’m sure the wine’s very good, but now I’ve just got a rather unfortunate implication for the word…

  8. August 27, 2010 12:27 pm

    I didn’t know she’d written any other books. This is one I’ve been curious about but just haven’t picked up yet.

    • August 30, 2010 11:51 am

      Amber – Yup, three books since this one, all of them really interesting and fun to read.

  9. August 28, 2010 12:31 pm

    I haven’t read any of her books, but have been meaning to try one. I don’t think it will be this one though, especially since that cover really freaks me out. Yes I’m a bit squeamish.

    • August 30, 2010 11:52 am

      Alyce – Yeah, if the cover is not going well, you may be better off skipping the contents. I hope you read one of her others, though!

  10. October 12, 2010 1:51 am

    i have this one on my bookshelf and will hopefully get to it soon. like you mentioned, this will be my intro to Roach, so i’ll probably follow her books sequentially as she wrote them.

    great review!

  11. July 4, 2013 8:31 pm

    I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but I’ve always wanted to read this book. Thanks for the encouragement!

  12. July 5, 2013 10:43 am

    I read this a few years ago and loved it! I am morbid so this was right up my alley.


  1. Book Review: #31 – Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (audio) | Let's eat Grandpa!
  2. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach |

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