Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach is the one-stop book for everything you ever wanted to know—or never wanted to know—about dead bodies. I read this book on the recommendation of Caitlin Doughty, who’s memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory I also thoroughly enjoyed. Like Doughty, Mary Roach has a pithy and dark sense of humor, although at times Roach comes off as a bit less sensitive. Unlike Doughty, Roach is not a native to the mortuary industry and related realms, approaching these sensitive topics from the inside. Instead she is a celebrated journalist, in the spotlight right now for her latest book, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Both Stiff and Grunt, among several other books, are part of a sort of series of works—all given one-word titles with clever subtitles—in which Roach examines a particular topic in depth. I think next I’ll have to check out Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.
In Stiff, Mary Roach takes an in-depth look at just about everything that could happen to a body after death—now and in the past. She spends much of the book discussing the various ways that cadavers are used for scientific research, from cadaver labs to surgery practice to plastinated brains and crash-test dummies. She gives a pretty detailed account of the fraught history of cadaver research, including lurid tales of body snatching and murder. For bodies not donated to science, Roach also delves into natural decay, organ donation, and various funerary and body disposal practices. Despite covering such a broad spectrum of topics, the book progresses in a fluid and cohesive manor, flowing easily from Roach’s first person accounts of visits and interviews to factoids she’s learned during her research. The book keeps up a lively (heh) pace as the reader follows Roach while she travels the world going on field trips to places you’d never think to visit—the classrooms of anatomy students, hands-on surgery seminars, body farms, Chinese crematories, and the Harvard Brain Bank, to name only a few
I kind of surprised myself with how much of the material I was already familiar with—I admit I yawned a bit through the chapters on body-snatching and the development of embalming—but then death has been a fascinating area of study for me for a while now. Despite this, there was still plenty in the book that was new. Roach’s ability to visit sites and give first-hand accounts of virtually everything she described created a sense of personalization of death and a true immersion in the subject, which made Stiff such an interesting and unique read.
As with Caitlin Doughty’s book, Stiff is not for the squeamish. Roach does not shy away from gory details or indelicate questions, examining everything she encounters with the brash curiosity and bluntness of a reporter. But if you’re ready to brace yourself and plunge in to the fascinating world of death, Stiff is a great book to start with. I highly recommend listening to the audiobook read by Shelly Frasier.
Have you read Stiff or any of Roach’s other books? What did you think? Let me know in the comments! And feel free to send me recommendations for other books you think might help me to break further into the realm of nonfiction.