Friday, March 06, 2020

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers - Mary Roach

Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers caught my eye back in 2004 when it was first published but, for some reason, it never made its way off my TBR list and into my hands for actual reading. I finally fixed that this week.

Stiff is billed as an account of “the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries,” but it is a whole lot more than just that. It is also a book likely to answer most of the dark questions about exactly what happens to the human body after death that so many of us have stored somewhere deep in the back of our minds for later consideration. Keep in mind, though, that this is a book about what happens to a body after death, it is not a book about the actual dying process of those bodies, two very different topics.

Mary Roach
Not surprisingly, much of Stiff is devoted to a close look at what actually happens to all the bodies that are donated to science. Roach did not take the easy way out in doing her research for Stiff by confining her research simply to interviewing anatomy professors and the like. Instead, she wrangled her way into anatomy classes and observed firsthand as medical students dissected human cadavers. Her willingness to see and smell things up close for herself sometimes led to unforgettable scenes such as the one she describes as a dozen or so freshly dead human heads sat in aluminum grocery store roasting pans while doctors practiced various surgical techniques on them. That’s a scene I’m not likely soon to forget.

Here are a few of the other topics that Roach covers so well (and sometimes so wittily) in Stiff:

·      The history of human cadavers being used for medical study purposes, including the body-snatching era during which countless bodies were stolen from fresh graves and sold to doctors and medical schools
·      The embalming process, how long it lasts, and how it compares to the alternatives of cremation, human composting, etc. in cost and suitability
·      Bone salvaging from human cadavers and the production of whole human skeletons for medical schools
·      Human cadaver and man-made cadaver-substitute usage for testing as crash dummies and the stopping power of ammunition
·      The “Body Farm” in Tennessee used to study human cadaver decay to help pinpoint time-of-death determinations of murder victims
·      Studies of human crucifixion to help determine the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin

Bottom Line: Mary Roach tackles a number of squeamish subjects in Stiff, but she somehow manages to walk a fine enough line combining humor and science while doing so to produce a rather lighthearted read. I, in fact, found myself laughing out loud a couple of times just when I needed that bit of comic relief the most. Roach does no preaching in this book. She presents the facts and leaves it up to readers to decide if donating their bodies to science is a smart thing or a dumb thing to do. Only at the very end of the book, does she tell us what she herself plans to do when her own time comes – and why or why not.

10 comments:

  1. Several years ago, someone else recommended this book, but I'd forgotten about it. While I admit to being a little squeamish about the topic, I am interested.

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    1. It's not nearly as hard to read as I had imagined it would be. Roach has a great, ironic sense of humor and that helps.

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  2. Oh, this reminds me a bit of the one I read recently, Unnatural Causes by Dr. Richard Shepherd. That didn't pull any punches when it came to describing what happens to bodies when we expire, either. I found I had to read it in four or five sittings whilst reading something a bit lighter alongside. Fascinating stuff though.

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    1. I wanted to read this one particularly because I've always been curious about that kind of thing and it's too often sugarcoated when discussed at all. It was fascinating even if a little of the history it recounts didn't offer anything really new.

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  3. I keep intending to read Mary Roach- have several including this one on my long list- and never have yet. I think I was leery of this book as I can be a bit squeamish sometimes. The dash of humor helps a lot I am sure.

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    1. It really does help, Jeane, because it's so understated and comes when you least expect it. She often directs the humor at herself and her reaction to something she's just observed, so it works well to lighten the moment. Roach is a good writer.

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  4. I've read a couple of books by this author, but this one was always a turnoff for some reason LOL

    Did you ever read Smoke Gets in Your Eyes? It's a memoir about working in a crematorium - so good.

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    1. I've heard twice now about Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, so I'm going to have to take a look at it. Thanks.

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  5. This is one of those weirdly interesting books that most people probably wouldn't want to read...but that I would. I don't know what that says about me... ;D

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    1. Says that your a curious person who wants to know the truth, Lark. That's a good thing. :-)

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