Review: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

I don’t review non-fiction because I often can’t speak to its veracity. Depending on the topic, it can be difficult to see the author’s bias or where they’ve bent facts to fit a narrative. From my layman’s perspective, though, Mary Roach’s Stiff offers unique and comforting insight into death’s aftereffects. She examines cadavers and related areas of research via interviews, bizarre trivia, and humor.

Here’s the Table of Contents, which gives a good idea of the book’s range:

  1. A Head Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Practicing surgery on the dead
  2. Crimes of Anatomy: Body snatching and other sordid tales from the dawn of human dissection
  3. Life After Death: On human decay and what can be done about it
  4. Dead Man Driving: Human crash test dummies and the ghastly, necessary science of impact tolerance
  5. Beyond the Black Box: When the bodies of passengers must tell the story of the crash
  6. The Cadaver Who Joined the Army: The sticky ethics of bullets and bombs
  7. Holy Cadaver: The crucifixion experiments
  8. How to Know If You’re Dead: Beating-heart cadavers, live burial, and the scientific search for the soul
  9. Just a Head: Decapitation, reanimation, and the human head transplant
  10. Eat Me: Medicinal cannibalism and the case of the human dumplings
  11. Out of the Fire, into the Compost Bin: And other new ways to end up
  12. Remains of the Author: Will she or won’t she?

(Most chapters can stand alone, so it’s alright to skip one if you find a particular topic too unsettling.)

Roach’s practicality is oddly soothing. She has a clear, funny, and compassionate tone that seeks to inform without being gratuitous or disrespectful. What most stood out to me was the level of respect in each chapter. Doctors, scientists, and researchers are all shown to be profoundly thankful for donors. On the surface, the cadavers are treated horribly—picked apart, left to rot, or smashed in collisions—but it’s all to develop life-changing (often life-saving) advancements in medicine and technology:

Because of changes that have come about as a result of cadaver studies, it’s now possible to survive a head-on crash into a wall at 60 mph. In a 1995 Journal of Trauma article entitled “Humanitarian Benefits of Cadaver Research on Injury Prevention,” Albert King calculated that vehicle safety improvements that have come about as a result of cadaver research have saved an estimated 8,500 lives each year since 1987. For every cadaver that rode the crash sleds to test three-point seat belts, 61 lives per year have been saved. For every cadaver that took an air bag in the face, 147 people per year survive otherwise fatal head-ons. For every corpse whose head has hammered a windshield, 68 lives per year are saved. (91)

Periodically, I felt sad while reading because it’s impossible to forget that all the cadavers in this book were once attached to people. No personal details are provided, which means you can’t help picturing your own body among them. There’s no difference between these cadavers and what I’ll be someday, but Roach’s self-aware humor reminds the reader that we’re all in this together. This fundamental sadness is why Roach’s humor is so important and so necessary. If this were a depressing book, I wouldn’t have read it, no matter how interesting. As is, I read it inside a week and read long chunks aloud to my husband.

Stiff delivers its tidy perspective-check (and an endorsement of cadaver/organ donation) without getting preachy. This is why I’ve chosen to make this review the first of 2019 because the new year is all about introspection and you can’t have a new beginning without thinking of the end. There’s really only one thing wrong with this book and it’s no one’s fault: It was published 14 years ago. The old, historical anecdotes probably haven’t changed, but there are some new developments in medicine and tech that I would have been interested to see included.

Overall: 4.7 (out of 5.0)

Translation. Read it (soon).

4 thoughts on “Review: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach”

  1. We are all in this together! Great book and after reading your review, I started rereading the book. What a great review to start the year – kudos!

    1. Thank you! It’s such a great/fun read that I was honestly sorry it wasn’t longer. Which says a lot because I’ve started looking around for shorter books this year. When did everything start topping 350 pages??

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