Friday, September 24, 2010


Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
© 2003 Mary Roach
303 pages

Being dead is absurd. It's the silliest situation you'll find yourself in. Your limbs are floppy and uncooperative. Your mouth hangs open. Being dead is unsightly and stinky and embarrassing, and there's not a damn thing to be done about it.  - p.11

Stiff is a lively book about the dead -- odd, thoughtful, informative, and oddly funny. Over the course of a dozen chapters, Mary Roach finds out what becomes of us when we cease to be. Her journey starts in the world of science, where surgeons practice their art, drawing on the lessons of anatomists who were themselves taught by the dead. Vocational opportunities for corpses abound, particularly in testing automobile airbags and armaments.  Forensics specialists and other detectives find them particularly helpful. And then there are the odder uses people find for the recently deceased -- recreating the crucifixion of Jesus, or attempting to make severed heads come alive by supplying them with oxygenated blood.

My first thought after settling in to read this was that I should've saved it for Halloween:  part of the holiday is making light of death and other mysterious or frightening things. My reaction to death has always been fascination rather than fear, hence my attraction to this book. Even those who find death intimidating will be able to enjoy Mary Roach's approach: the book is saturated with dry humor, interesting tales, Roach's occasional tangents. She prefers a hands-on approach to investigation, taking the reader into embalming studios, body farms, Chinese mortuaries rumored to be the source of "human dumplings", and an abandoned laboratory where the first head transplants were attempted.

While readers can expect to learn quite a bit about the use of entomology in forensics,  the history of anatomy,  and the benefits of being a brain-in-a-jar, discovering how people who interact with decedents on a regular basis relate to their work fascinated me. Some objectify the dead, imagining them as a faceless mass of tissue, while others hold memorial services and give their subject bodies names. How the living relate to the dead is a major theme of the book, and another reason why I would've liked to read it around Halloween.

The information, humor, and musings make the book a memorably enjoyable experience, and I'd recommend it provided you aren't too squeamish. While Roach isn't gratuitously graphic, it's a book about dead bodies. Don't read the chapter on body farms if you're within three hours of a meal. I'll be reading more of Roach.,

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