Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

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. In this fascinating account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and tells the engrossing story of ou...

Title:Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Author:
Rating:
ISBN:0393324826
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Paperback
Number of Pages:320 pages

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers Reviews

  • Lissa
    Sep 26, 2007

    I bought this book when I first taught my class that has a foresnic anthropology component. I thought I could pick out a chapter of this book to assign to them, and it would be a nice, informative, lay-person account that would be entertaining, yet informational. However, due to time constraints, I never got around to reading the book. In that time, several people have borrowed and returned this book to me, so my copy is a bit tattered and dog-eared, as if I'd read it many times. I can safely sa

    I bought this book when I first taught my class that has a foresnic anthropology component. I thought I could pick out a chapter of this book to assign to them, and it would be a nice, informative, lay-person account that would be entertaining, yet informational. However, due to time constraints, I never got around to reading the book. In that time, several people have borrowed and returned this book to me, so my copy is a bit tattered and dog-eared, as if I'd read it many times. I can safely say, having read it once, that I will not be going back to read it again.

    Stiff is a non-fiction, "science" writing book. Roach chronicles the different processes that happen to a human being after it dies. Each chapter tackles a different possible outcome for a person's corpse. She goes through chapters about anatomy labs, decay, crash-test and military trials (for safer vehicles, or more effective bullets), plane crashes, transplants, burial and cremation, and even cannibalism. The material for this book is endlessly fascinating and I feel like it has a lot of potential.

    That being said, I find Mary Roach's style of writing intensely irritating, which took away from the overall effectiveness of the narrative. Much of her writing is sort of falsely funny, as if she is very intentially trying to inject humor into a situation through the use of ridiculous asides that do nothing to add information or further her point.

    She also continually resorts to forced bathroom and genetalia jokes in order to articially infuse the book with humor. On many occasaions, she asks the scientists she interviews about what happens specifically to penile tissues. She then describes the patient if annoyed air that some of the scientists take with the assumption that the readers will all be tittering with her on her side. Well, I'm sorry, I'm with the scientists. I find that kind of thing immature and irrtating, like many of the jokes in this book. The last way that she commonly tries to inject humor into her writing is by pretending squeamishness for the sake of her readers.

    What kills me about this is that there are parts of the book that are legitimateuly funny, where the humor is not forced but just found in the situation. There is a description of her first visit to a very small town in China that strong reminded me of some of my problems getting around in small towns in various African countries. There is also a funny commentary about a woman who volunteers to get multiple pap smears so that future ObGyns can practice (a job that I hope pays very. very. well). Additionally, there is some really interesting information in this book. I knew a lot about the use of bodies to determine what happened in plane crashes and the sort of things that happen in gross anatomy labs. But did you know that males and females have slightly different EEG profiles? And, after a heart transplant, those do not change. Also, did you know that there have been many proven ways to make riding in aircrafts safer, including shoulder harness seat belts, more emergency exits, sprinkler systems and side airbags for impact, but none of these are being implemented because the airlines don't want to have to incur the extra costs? There are plenty of little factoids like these that are quite interesting.

    The bottom line for me was that there was simply not enough actual science in this science book. I've read plenty of popular science books that have managed to do a much better job walking the line between entertainment for the layperson and providing good information. As far as book that tell stories about cadavers, I would recommend any of the popular science books by William Bass or Douglas Ubelaker over this book as both fascinating and more informative.

  • Tung
    Jan 09, 2008

    In my nonfiction phase during the year, I grabbed this one and after finishing it, regretted its purchase. The book is about medical use of corpses and the human body, present-day and in the past. The subject matter is extremely interesting, and some of the methods, tests, and history behind human body experiments is worth the read. The book makes you want to be an organ donor, or want to donate your body to medical science. The problem is that the author is one of the WORST writers I have ever

    In my nonfiction phase during the year, I grabbed this one and after finishing it, regretted its purchase. The book is about medical use of corpses and the human body, present-day and in the past. The subject matter is extremely interesting, and some of the methods, tests, and history behind human body experiments is worth the read. The book makes you want to be an organ donor, or want to donate your body to medical science. The problem is that the author is one of the WORST writers I have ever read to the extent that every time I picked up the book I got angry. I only finished the book because my OCD made me finish it because I’d already started it. The two irritating aspects of the book are: 1) Roach would spend a few pages describing something fascinating and then ruin it all by throwing in the snarkiest comment imaginable. For example, she’d discuss how feet are used by scientists, and then throw in a comment about her stinky socks. 2) A few years ago, a friend saw a movie about the roads to concentration camps at the Tribeca Film Festival that was atrocious because the director stuck himself into the film and made himself part of the story. That’s what this author does for the whole friggin’ book. Just awful.

  • Trevor
    Sep 23, 2008

    If you can’t cope with the idea of death without a hearty dose of euphemism – this probably isn’t going to be the book for you.

    When I became an archivist at the City of Melbourne a very dear friend of mine became a technician at the city Morgue. I figured at the time he had watched a couple of episodes too many of Quincy M.E. and that he would find a normal job eventually. It is probably 15 years since I stopped being an archivist – my friend still cuts up dead people for a living.

    A few weeks a

    If you can’t cope with the idea of death without a hearty dose of euphemism – this probably isn’t going to be the book for you.

    When I became an archivist at the City of Melbourne a very dear friend of mine became a technician at the city Morgue. I figured at the time he had watched a couple of episodes too many of Quincy M.E. and that he would find a normal job eventually. It is probably 15 years since I stopped being an archivist – my friend still cuts up dead people for a living.

    A few weeks after he started work I asked him how it was all going and he replied, “Good, yeah, I can even eat spaghetti now.” Sometimes it is best not to ask.

    This book is a bit of a career guide for those of us who are post-life. There are a remarkable number of interesting things one can get up to after life. Many of these choices are presented in this book in an up-close-and-personal way that I particularly enjoyed.

    I’m a fairly robust character, but there were many moments when I made involuntary noises during this book. The swallowed fly was a case in point and by far the worst. The noise I made was loud enough and distressing enough for my daughters to ask what was the matter – they didn’t ask again.

    Part of my friend’s job involves removing people’s brains – this is also described in some detail here. The problem is that once the brain has been removed you can’t really pop it back from whence it came – so instead it is placed in the chest cavity. This means the head needs to be ‘packed’ and generally this is done with newspaper. One of the decisions made by those putting you back together again is which newspaper would seem most appropriate for you. (I assume in these days of obsessive Orwellian Double-Speak the corpses are called clients or customers or something equally ridiculous – although I wish it was after Waugh and they were called Loved Ones.) I really don’t mind what happens to me once I’m dead – I figure I’m going to be busy enough explaining to God why He doesn’t exist to be worried about what happens to my body – but I must admit that spending eternity with my head stuffed with a Murdoch rag does seem to be a punishment disproportionate to any crime I have committed whilst alive.

  • Kemper
    Mar 09, 2011

    Mary Roach details a lot of uses for human cadavers in this book, but she missed a major one. As

    taught us, you can always use the corpse of your boss to scam your way into a free weekend at a beach house. That scientific research is all well and good, but there’s nothing in here at all about the best ways to simulate a life like corpse for your own selfish purposes. I learned more from Andrew McCarthy than I did reading this!

    Ah, but seriously folks… This is the second book I’

    Mary Roach details a lot of uses for human cadavers in this book, but she missed a major one. As

    taught us, you can always use the corpse of your boss to scam your way into a free weekend at a beach house. That scientific research is all well and good, but there’s nothing in here at all about the best ways to simulate a life like corpse for your own selfish purposes. I learned more from Andrew McCarthy than I did reading this!

    Ah, but seriously folks… This is the second book I’ve read by Roach, and I admire the way that she can take touchy and gross subjects like corpses in this one or human feces in

    , treat them seriously but still manage to keep a sense of humor about them. While she always has one eye on the science, she never uses it to shield out the normal human responses, and this allows her to provide a clear eyed account of the uses and disposal of the dead. (One of my favorite parts involved Roach asking someone how heads were removed from cadavers for surgical practices and was told that one woman in the lab removed them all. She later met the woman who actually did the chopping and Roach admits that all she could think was, “You cut off heads!!”)

    So we get treated to a gory set of stories about how science uses corpses in a variety of ways including the study of impacts for the auto industry, how a brain-dead woman’s organs are removed by a transplant team, and a field of bodies left to rot for forensic research. We also get an overview of how science has used or misused bodies to advance both legitimate research and outright quackery in the past. There’s also a long section reflecting on the best way to dispose of human remains since traditional burials and cremations are costly, environmentally harmful and wasteful.

    While I found this really interesting and enjoyed Roach’s writing and approach, there were times when this book completely disgusted me, and I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for gore. One section about the history of various mad scientists grafting severed heads of dogs and monkeys onto other dogs and monkeys and actually managing to keep them alive for some time was almost too much, and I kind of wished she would have left that chapter out.

    Still, this was a really interesting book. I just wouldn’t try to eat a plate of lasagna while reading it.

  • Becky
    Jun 27, 2011

    There was not a single zombie in this whole book!!

    Mary Roach writes books about some interesting topics. This is the one that most interested me, though on finishing I realized that I also had "Packing For Mars," which I think will likely get read sooner rather than later, now that I've finally got around to reading one of her books and have really enjoyed her style. She brings a bit of levity and a healthy sense of the absurd to topics that most of us can go a full lifetime avoiding even thinki

    There was not a single zombie in this whole book!!

    Mary Roach writes books about some interesting topics. This is the one that most interested me, though on finishing I realized that I also had "Packing For Mars," which I think will likely get read sooner rather than later, now that I've finally got around to reading one of her books and have really enjoyed her style. She brings a bit of levity and a healthy sense of the absurd to topics that most of us can go a full lifetime avoiding even thinking about.

    I find myself having to be a bit of a messenger-killer though, because, while I get that she was being thorough in reporting on the history of anatomy and scientific discovery and experimentation regarding the body, all of the stuff about the animal experimentation just really bothered me. Like, a lot. I think that I'm already like 92.3% misanthropic, and all the "Hey, let's take the head off of a monkey and graft it onto a different monkey and see what happens!" stuff probably raised that to like 95.9%. If I had to guesstimate. I can understand if we're trying to understand and DO something. Experimentation is needed. Practicing some things, like grafting together veins and arteries to reattach limbs or do transplants, is vital, and since people are generally hesitant about being the guinea pigs... real guinea pigs are needed. I can understand that.

    But some of these experiments are just... frivolous god-playing, in my opinion. It doesn't serve a purpose in the long run, for people or animals, and is just done because it can be, because there's no compelling reason not to, and they were "doing science".

    Then there are some little quirky writing things that kind of annoyed me, like Roach's tendency to get off-track and ramble on about a side topic for a bit too long before getting back to the interesting topic she interrupted with her anecdote or sidebar story.

    And so, I drop a star for these things. But only one, because the rest of the book is great. There are some insights in this book that really made me stop and think. For instance, laws against necrophilia in Nevada were more complete and specific than rape laws in the US: “The carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” Until January 1, 2013 that is, when rape was redefined as: “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” (Per

    .)

    Then there's the statistics of just how man lives can be saved by doing crash test experiments on actual human cadavers. Or how squeamish and prudish people can be about dead bodies.

    I am not a religious or spiritual person. To me, everything in this book related to putting cadavers to use made perfect sense. I've been an organ donor for as long as I've had the ability to check the box when renewing my drivers license. If I die, take anything useful and give it to anyone who needs it. I can't use them anymore, why should I keep them? Sentimentality? I've had discussions with people who say that they'd "never!" check that organ donor box on their license because EMTs and doctors "won't try as hard" to save organ donors. To which I call bullshit. They aren't going to check your ID for the indicator before deciding whether to give you CPR, and they probably aren't the ones who would determine whether your squishy insides are even viable options for donation. Plus, the purpose of that kind of transplant would be to save a life, right? And your life is right there, waiting to be saved, while a potential organ recipient is a spot on a list and probably not bleeding out in front of them.

    Check the organ donor box. They'd try to save you if you need it. I promise.

    If they don't, haunt the shit out of them.

    Anyway, as I was saying. In my mind, it makes no sense at all for a perfectly good body to just rot in a hole somewhere, or be incinerated. It can do something worthwhile. Maybe try out the newest seatbelt or airbag technology, or safety harness gear for people who work on insanely high platforms, like the guys who have to fix antennas on building or something. Or maybe they could be used for teaching the next crop of doctors how to actually perform the procedures they are supposed to do. If they botch it their first time out (or second or third or fourth), wouldn't you want that to be a practice run on a cadaver who isn't going to know or care, rather than on you?

    The section about the soul was lost on me, because, well, as I said, I'm not much of a spiritual type person. I don't really give that kind of thing much thought. That being said, I think it's pretty silly to claim traits have "followed" an organ from the donor to the recipient. The claim that a donor heart made the recipient into a sex fiend or made the recipient feel like a teenager and want to drive fast cars and listen to loud music is pretty outlandish. My theory is that the recipient has just been given a healthy heart (or whatever) and suddenly has a new lease on life, and wants to make the most of it. The simplest explanation is usually the right one.

    Another thing that I thought was kind of silly was Dr. Oz being quoted several times in this book. As an expert, not a TV celebrity quack. I'm sorry, I live in 2015. I just can't take this guy seriously. He's a joke who got rich on daytime TV by exploiting people and selling them bullshit and lies. If he was an actual legit doctor at some point, he's lost any credibility he might have had. I was actually really surprised to see his name in this book. It seemed so rational otherwise. But this, really?: "[L]ife and death is not a binary system. [...] In between life and death is a state of near-death, or pseudo-life. And most people don't want what's in between."

    Uhhhh, right, Dr. Oz. If you say so. You're the "expert".

    The section about ingesting human flesh or secretions for health benefits was pretty yucky, but otherwise I didn't think that this book was distasteful or gross at all. I really thought that the anatomy and decomposition research sections were fascinating, as well as the black box death investigator guy. I also learned quite a lot about the funereal business, which probably shouldn't have surprised me as much as it did... but I guess it's just not something that I've had cause to think about (and hopefully won't yet for a while).

    I actually appreciated the journalistic detachment mixed with first-hand experience that Roach brought to this. It definitely gave it a lot of credibility in my mind. I think she asked good questions, better questions, if maybe a bit different, than I would have asked.

    All in all, I think that this was interesting and informative, and it's made me want to explore my post-life options a little bit more. There's a lot of them available now, but there still seems to be a stigma about remains being dealt with in non-traditional ways... or maybe that's just because of where I am, with the prevailing Catholic notions in the area.

    I'd be perfectly happy being composted via an organic burial pod so I'd be tree-food.

  • Dan Schwent
    Jan 18, 2012

    Mary Roach writes about what happens when you donate your body to science. Hilarity ensues. Well, maybe not hilarity but it is a good dose of edutainment.

    Way back around the time the earth's crust cooled and life spread across the planet, late 1994 or early 1995, I should think, I visited a chiropractic college with the rest of my Advanced Biology class. This trip was memorable to me for three reasons:

    1) It was the first time I experienced an excruciating caffeine withdrawal headache

    2) It was th

    Mary Roach writes about what happens when you donate your body to science. Hilarity ensues. Well, maybe not hilarity but it is a good dose of edutainment.

    Way back around the time the earth's crust cooled and life spread across the planet, late 1994 or early 1995, I should think, I visited a chiropractic college with the rest of my Advanced Biology class. This trip was memorable to me for three reasons:

    1) It was the first time I experienced an excruciating caffeine withdrawal headache

    2) It was the first time I saw a human cadaver

    3) I smoked five of my classmates playing pool in the student lounge at lunch.

    Obviously, #2 is the one pertinent to this review, although I am still quite proud of #3. The cadaver I saw had its face covered and its skin looked shriveled, somewhat like beef jerky. My 17 year old mind briefly wondered where the man had come from before my hormone-fueled brain returned my attention to the nubile young ladies in the room. Anyway, let's get down to review business.

    Mary Roach manages to take a subject that give many people the heebie-jeebies, donating one's remains to science, and makes it humorous at times. She covers such topics as learning surgical techniques via practicing on cadavers, human decomposition, ingesting human remains for medicinal purpose, using corpses in car crash tests, using cadavers for ballistics tests, crucifixion experiments, and even head transplants.

    While it's not ideal meal-time reading, I didn't find it as stomach churning as some reviewers did. The talk of decomposition and quack remedies of the Middle ages were fascinating and I was really interested in the head and brain transplant experiments. Frankenstein's monster doesn't seem as unrealistic as it did yesterday.

    Apparently, necrophilia is only illegal in 16 states. Imagine if that was one of your criteria when choosing a place to live. "Honey, I'd love to live in Florida but then we couldn't have our sexy parties..."

    Actually, the funeral bits were also pretty enlightening. Did you know they have to suture the anus shut to keep nastiness from leaking out during a funeral? Or that dead people can fart from gas trapped in their intestines? Or that they insert special caps underneath the eyelids to keep them from suddenly opening? Fascinating stuff.

    Stiff is a very interesting read for those interested in what happens when you donate your body to science, softened somewhat by Roach's sense of humor. Three easy stars.

  • Kelly (and the Book Boar)
    May 02, 2015

    Find all of my reviews at:

    If you know me, you already know that I have a

    sort of relationship with the dead. You know, the kind where y

    Find all of my reviews at:

    If you know me, you already know that I have a

    sort of relationship with the dead. You know, the kind where you dress them up . . .

    and play

    hilarious games with them . . .

    Obviously once I heard about

    it had to go right to the top of my TBR. In all honesty, I was expecting something just a smidge more entertaining than my high school biology book. You know, the kind of book only a morbid weirdo like myself could truly enjoy. To say I was pleasantly surprised is the understatement of the year.

    Most of us are already familiar with the potential a cadaver has to continue on after his expiration date . . .

    takes it to a whole new level, covering just about every potential “career” one can have after death . . .

    ^^^^ Yes, please.

    As well as tackling everything from burial to composting as a potential “disposal” method. Not to mention dealing with the more taboo subjects that relate to the dead . . .

    As a bonus, all of the above subject matter was written about with such charm and humor that I found myself LOLing for real at times. Mary Roach is the type of gal I’d like to have a drink with. Not only was she able to write about “stiffs” with a sense of humor, she also shamelessly owned up to her own oddities . . .

    If reading a “smart people book” (a/k/a non-fiction) is something you’d like to do more of,

    is one I’d highly recommend.

  • Matthew
    Jan 06, 2017

    First read of 2017 complete! It was a good one - 4.5 stars.

    Who knew that a book about what happens to our bodies after we die could be so interesting. This book covers everything to the horrific to the incredibly fascinating. This book may not be for the squeamish, but I think Roach did a great job combining information and humor in a respectful manner to make it more easily accessible to a wider audience.

    I recently helped to prepare a funeral plan for my Mother. She is still alive, but it was s

    First read of 2017 complete! It was a good one - 4.5 stars.

    Who knew that a book about what happens to our bodies after we die could be so interesting. This book covers everything to the horrific to the incredibly fascinating. This book may not be for the squeamish, but I think Roach did a great job combining information and humor in a respectful manner to make it more easily accessible to a wider audience.

    I recently helped to prepare a funeral plan for my Mother. She is still alive, but it was suggested that we prepare ahead of time to make sure that all wishes are met and there is no scrambling when the event happens to figure out what is wanted and where the money comes from - less stressful for all! After reading this book, I am not saying I will go back and change any of our decisions, but it definitely gave me a lot of thinking points I would not have considered and may have had an affect on how my decision making went if I had read this before the planning took place.

    After death - the inanimate body lives on and something has to be done with it - read this if you want to know more!

    Side note - This is my second Mary Roach (I also read

    ) and I liked this one a bit better.


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