Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

by Mary Roach

Paperback, 2004




W. W. Norton & Company, (2004)


An oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For 2,000 years, cadavers--some willingly, some unwittingly--have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. They've tested France's first guillotines, ridden the NASA Space Shuttle, been crucified in a Parisian laboratory to test the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, and helped solve the mystery of TWA Flight 800. For every new surgical procedure--from heart transplants to gender reassignment surgery--cadavers have been there alongside surgeons, making history in their quiet way. In this fascinating, ennobling account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries--from the anatomy labs and human-sourced pharmacies of medieval and nineteenth-century Europe to a human decay research facility in Tennessee, to a plastic surgery practice lab, to a Scandinavian funeral directors' conference on human composting. In her droll, inimitable voice, Roach tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member msjoanna
Mary Roach is an irreverent and funny writer. This book is light on the science and heavy on the penis inquiries, but it worked for me. Roach is absolutely correct that the subject of what happens to cadavers is one that's a little gross, a little weird, and a little difficult to think and talk about for most readers and even for many of the folks who work with dead bodies. While there were moments when it seemed like Roach was unfairly forcing ever-patient scientists into uncomfortable conversations and expecting the reader to laugh at the scientist, mostly I found her approach amusing. Besides, she was often asking questions that I also wanted to know the answers to but might have been too polite or uncomfortable to ask.

The book tended to read a little like a series of essays on rather than a complete book, but the approach worked well as the chapters divided the book into managable chunks and made nice breaking points to set the book down and read something less morbid for a while.
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LibraryThing member retropelocin
And you thought death was boring!

What do you want to do with your death? Who knew we would still have such a wide variety of career choices? In Stiff, Mary Roach educates us on all the possibilities.

Interested in having plastic surgery? It costs the cadaver nothing!

Ever wanted to be a car crash test dummy? It's not too late!

Join law enforcement and commune with nature working on the infamous body farm.

Speaking of nature, how about giving back to the environment as compost? You can do it! No previous experience required!

All these and many more options await you in Stiff.

Written in a conversational tone for the layperson, Roach asks all the questions you would want to ask but would feel stupid doing so. She asks no matter how silly and, yes, in the end this makes for a very entertaining read!

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LibraryThing member KarriesKorner
I really wasn't sure this was a book I wanted to read, but everyone kept telling me how great it was. I was hooked in the first chapter, and thoroughly enjoyed this interesting and thought provoking book. Mary Roach has taken a topic that is really kinda macabre, and has made it fascinating and...well, entertaining. In some places it is laugh-outloud funny.
Somehow I was able to separate myself from the descriptions of graverobbers, funeral rites, organ transplants, and the physiological effects of death on a body. I got so engrossed in this book that at one point I was reading it while I was eating dinner, only to realize that I was reading about the process of embalming as I put my fork in my mouth.
I enjoyed the way the book ended with the thought provoking topics of what she will do with her body when she dies.
Don't miss this book.
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LibraryThing member Katie_H
Whether you are wanting to donate your organs, become an anatomy class cadaver, be a crash test dummy, get a post-mortem face lift, or let your body rot away in a coffin when you die, be sure to read this book first! Yes, it's 100% morbid, but it's hilarious at the same time, and extremely informative. It's everything you want to know about dead bodies, and so much you never wanted to know too! Roach covers all aspects of "donation for science," including, surgery practice, gross anatomy lab, decomposition studies, and crash and ballistic testing. Also detailed are the "normal" burial topics, embalming, cremation, and coffin rot. There are a few weirder sections too (if it's possible to get any weirder!), such as, head transplantation and medicinal cannibalism...pure entertainment! The author's humor is irreverent, but she is never disrespectful toward her subjects. STIFF is wonderfully engrossing, well researched, and provides plenty of new perspectives to ponder. I recommend this to anyone and everyone.… (more)
LibraryThing member VivienneR
Roach's humour is not of the rib-tickling type, but portrayed through forthright, straightforward language that is cheered with a light-heartedness and a few witty asides. There is just the right amount of wit, less gruesome content than expected (although the chapter on medical treatments derived from body parts was pretty grim), and the entire book was fascinating. Roach obviously enjoyed researching this book. Including her personal opinions was smart, a good way to handle the inevitable question. Stiff says what we all think about but rarely articulate. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member ladycato
This is not a book for everyone.

In STIFF, Mary Roach researches what is done with the dead. It's a fascinating book, especially if you enjoy obscure trivia. Roach uses just enough wit to soften the subject matter without making it irreverent (though some would find the entire subject appalling). Topics included practicing surgery on the dead, body snatching, human crash test dummies, what bodies say about airplane crashes, the search for the soul, and cannibalism. Is it gross? Yes. Was I squeamish? A little bit, but I also read the book during many meals and had no issues. For me, the grossest sections were near the end, especially in regards to human head transplantations. Those poor, poor experimental dogs and monkeys with two heads...

An example of the book's tone can be seen here, from page 139 regarding a gelatin used to simulate a thigh in weapon's tests:
"Ballistic gelatin is essentially a tweaked version of Knox dessert gelatin. It is denser than dessert gelatin, having been formulated to match the average density of human tissue, is less colorful, and, lacking sugar, is less likely to please dinner guests."

I found the book quite insightful and already placed several sticky bookmarks for subject matter I will want to review again.
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LibraryThing member mishmelle
I don't read much non-fiction, especially science, but this book was hilarious and not at all dry. Yes, a little gross at times, so if you get squeaked out easily it may not be for you. The author was able to take a humorous look at at not-so-humorous subject. I felt it was respectul to the deceased and it was more the situation and the people who dealt with it that was the focus of the humor.

If you ever wanted to know every possible scenario of what could happen to the cadaver of someone who has checked the "donate to science" box...get this book. You'll learn and laugh at the same time.
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LibraryThing member megaden
I first got this book as an ARC and everyone who saw me reading it was appalled. Who would read a book about dead bodies? Those doubters! I've since lent this book to many of my friends and family and they've all loved it. It's a topic that's avoided and Roach manages to make an extremely funny book without being disrespectful.

After reading this book: no to embalming - yes to science!… (more)
LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
The author looks into the lives (perhaps that’s the wrong word) of human cadavers, exploring their use in medical school education and in car industry research. She tells us what happens to cadavers after death, how they decompose, and even the details that differentiate decomposition in a grave from cremation. She even offers information about preserving bodies after death (although it’s definitely not one thing I favor).

It’s funny that I never was curious about cadavers before. The more I read, the more interesting the subject became. The author makes liberal use of humor to depersonalize the corpses and lets the reader explore this unusual world. Her technique is very effective and makes for fascinating reading.
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LibraryThing member Glorybe1
An entertaining and quirky read about what can and does happen to your body after death should you decide to leave it to medical science.
There are a plethora of weird and wonderful things your body can be used for, not just a lot of students standing round a table looking at you in all your naked glory! It is incredible, you could be used to see how long a body takes to decompose in various situations, what happens to a body during high speed car crashes, what effect insects have on your decomposing self, different ways of disposing of the body after death! And many many more zany and useful experiments that can be done to help advance medical knowledge in all aspects of the body alive or dead!
Absolutely fascinating and done with humour and respect.
Quite an eye opener, but I have to say I am not considering leaving MY body to medical science, just yet!
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LibraryThing member fyrefly98
Summary: Stiff is a look at dead people. Not a biography or a history, but instead a book that examine the various fates of human cadavers. Far from what you might think, cadavers contribute quite a bit to society, from training future doctors to assessing the effectiveness of seatbelts to determining the cause of airplane crashes to assisting forensics experts determine time of death. Roach also devotes chapters to some of the stranger fates of human remains: medical cannibalism, the determination of the anatomical details of the crucifixion, and the science of decapitation and reanimation. Finally, Roach looks in detail at the realities of some of the traditional ways of dealing with corpses (burial, cremation), and the prospects of some newly-developed technologies for making yourself useful, even after death.

Review: Stiff is Mary Roach's first book, and as such, is probably most people's introduction to her work. I, however, came at things somewhat backwards: I've read Roach's other three books, while leaving Stiff sitting unread on my shelf. The was no particular reason for this, other than the vagaries of timing of when I could acquire the books, and what I was in the mood for when I picked them up, but it's given me somewhat of an unusual perspective on her earliest work. It's interesting to see the seeds of her later works in this book; almost the entirety of the chapter "How to Know if You're Dead" is repeated and expanded upon in Spook, we revisit the crash-test corpses again in Packing for Mars, and even the sex-in-an-MRI-machine from Bonk grew out of a footnoted mention here.

After reading the rest of Roach's works, I'd developed a good sense of her style: brashly inquisitive journalism into the absurdities and not-often-thought-about aspects of the science of human life, coupled with funny, tangent-filled, and snarky writing. While Stiff certainly stays true to this style, a few things surprised me. First, it wasn't nearly as irreverent as I was expecting. Roach points out in the introduction that this book isn't about people dying (which is "sad and profound"), it's about what happens to the physical matter that we leave behind after we die (which, as she rightly points out, is absurd and frequently amusing). However, despite this assertion, Roach is quite respectful throughout the book (occasionally even venturing into seriousness), both towards the people whose mortal remains are being used, and towards the living people who are doing the using.

I was also sort of surprised at how removed Roach seemed for a lot of the book. In her other books, it seems like she always wants to be right in the thick of the action, pestering researchers until they let her ride the Vomit Comet or have sex with her husband inside an MRI machine ( the name of science, of course). In Stiff, however, she seems pretty content to hang back at a comfortable distance, even declining several offers to get more up-close-and-personal with the research. (I almost said "immersed in the research," but when the topic at hand is corpses, that is a really unfortunate turn of phrase. On a related tip, learn from my mistake: I would recommend not reading the chapter on tissue decay right before you sit down to a meal.) Whether that's out of respect or based on a lingering uncomfortableness about working with cadavers is unclear, but on the whole, Roach does an excellent job of cutting through the ookiness and taboo nature of her topic without trivializing or dismissing it entirely.

In any case, I was entirely fascinated by this book, tearing through it in a single sitting (something that's almost unheard of for non-fiction). Not only was I engaged and entertained, but I also learned a whole lot of new trivia, and now have a much clearer idea of the various options for what might happen to my body once I no longer need it. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: While there are certainly some parts that might be disturbing to the squeamish, I think Roach did an excellent job of balancing humor and respect in approaching a topic that no one wants to think about, but that will eventually happen to all of us, and I'd recommend this book pretty broadly.
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LibraryThing member stretch
It's hard to make a book about dead bodies charming but Mary Roach has an uncanny ability to make the creepiest and most unsettling situations not only interesting and compelling, and turn it into a hilarious romp of discovery. She treats her subjects with tact and care geting her laughs at the expense of the living, but is refreshingly unsentimental in disscussing their many uses. I can garuantee you'll come away from this book with a new found respect and admiration for those who give up their bodies for scientific'll just have to ignore the odd looks you may get from anyone who sees you with it.… (more)
LibraryThing member wyvernfriend
A strangely compelling book that's quite an interesting read. Mary Roach looks into uses of corpses. From Science to organs from experimentation to art, this is a description of the many and varied uses of dead bodies and is strangely compelling. Occasionally I found myself wanting more information and then having my brain squirm with the idea.
One of the issues raised and not discussed to any great deal is the idea of ethics, some of the experimenters showed a great deal of respect for the remains but others seem to have little or no regard really for their fellow humans, and I have to wonder if that lack of respect extends into live people as well as the dead.
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LibraryThing member kattepusen

Despite tedious and desperate humor attempts, it is an interesting overview of the human body after death...

Of course, the title had me... I could not resist picking up a book with such a cover, and the repulsive allure was simply too strong. I had no idea what to expect, and the introductory paragraphs soon had me hooked.

The book deals with a variety of issues regarding human corpses - from how we decompose (do not read this chapter before going to sleeep, as I did) to various aspects of cannibalism, to plane crash investigations, to organ donation, to the promotion of human composting. It is an interesting account of the author's morbid curiosity about death; however, after a while the tone of the narrative became quite off-putting due to the insistence of presenting everything in a funny one-liner sort of way. Yes, a couple of times her musings were funny, but more often the side remarks just made me cringe and roll my eyes...

Also, the chapters are quite uneven. The cannibalism chapter just seems to ramble on and actually turns quite tedious with numerous unsubstantiated claims that may or may not be true according to the author. The head chapter I found quite interesting - even though the descriptions of animal experimentation were quite revolting. The chapter on cruxifiction was a waste - especially since the author herself seemed to preoccupied sneering at anyone who would be interested in this topic.
As a matter of fact, she often came off a bit condescending towards the people who helped her out - be it morticians, surgeons, lab personel or scientists.

All in all, however, it was an interesting overview of the physical state of the human body after death. I remain curious about several aspects of the accounts, and I am likely to finally pick up the classic "The American Way of Death" by Jessica Mitford, to which the author refers several times.
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LibraryThing member KarenM61
I was looking forward to reading this and was so excited to see it come up on my library queue.

This is all about the history and use of human cadavers in...all sorts of things. Like surgery, organ donation, teaching forensics, vehicle safety and impact studies. Mostly in predictable ways, but sometimes not. I was fascinated by the chapter on head transplants (somehow my brain interpreted the procedure as "grafting"). There were examples of other mammals besides humans included in that chapter, which was interesting too.

In some of the chapters, it would have been nice to see something besides the predictable ZOMGI'MAGIRLIT'SSOGROSSEEEEWWWWBODIES, but that's a personal preference. For some people it would add to the humor, I suppose.

Will I read anything else by the author? Yes, I think so. If you're the type of person that gets misty-eyed about a service for medical-school cadavers, you'll enjoy this.
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LibraryThing member TheDivineOomba
What a great, respectful, funny book about the uses of Cadavers...

I learned a lot of things, such as that I think I want to be cremated when I die. One thing ... This book will leave you thinking about death. I feel a bit like talking about to anyone who will listen, but than, I think I might be a bit too morbid and get some people worried about me. I did decide that I'd like to be cremated, or maybe the chemical cremation, which is more environmentally friendly. Or composted, if my remains can be used to grow a tree or flowers or something. Oh, and be an organ donor. Please Please please be an organ donor, and make sure you tell your family that this is your wish.

The book is a bit dated, for example, some of the experiments will have results now - results that allow for a better way to model human bodies out of Gel, or a better foot wear for soldiers who are set to clear mines from a mine field.

The author is always respectful of both the scientists and doctors she interviews and of the dead that is being used. This isn't a book for the squemish though... there are some truly heartbreaking information, usually about experiments from the 17th and 18th centuries, before medical doctors had ethics boards.

I especially liked the ending - she discusses the respects of the dead vs the needs of the living... It really makes me think about the reasons for burials and who they really are for.
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LibraryThing member ladybug74
I liked the first part of this book. I skimmed through some of the sections where the author discussed the history of cadavers because they weren't as interesting. I enjoyed the first person accounts that discussed things that the author witnessed and people who she talked with in person much better than the historical discussion. Parts of this book were funny and parts were absolutely gross.

I was surprised to learn that cadavers that are donated for research are used for many more things besides medical school and organ donation. There are definitely some things to think about if a person is considering donating his or her body for research.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
Mary Roach's "Stiff" is ostensibly a study of the various ways that human cadavers are used in scientific research, but Roach's book also serves another purpose: it consistently reminds the reader that the body they inhabit will one day be a corpse. We all know this already, of course, but, as Roach notes, we spend most of our lives avoiding this unpleasant fact. "Stiff," then, is a good way of coming to terms with your own mortality while learning a little bit about mortuary science, car safety, and forensics. I got the impression that Roach went through this same process while doing research for this book. In the first chapter, she describes the apprehension she felt as she attended a medical seminar that used corpses' heads as hands-on learning tools. It doesn't take too long for her comfort level with corpses to improve, and pretty soon she's providing her reader with level-headed descriptions of scientific studies that use dead bodies and extolling the virtues of the corpses that make these studies possible. By the end of the book, I was much more comfortable with the idea of donating my body to science and, in a roundabout kind of way, with the inevitability of my own demise.

One might expect to find a lot of strange and disquieting facts in any book that took human corpses as its subject, but as "Stiff" progresses, things begin to get really, really weird. The chapters that explore crypto-cannibalism and the plastination of human bodies are not for the faint of heart. Still, you have to admire Roach for being such an intrepid reporter. Much of "Stiffed" describes her experiences in the crematoriums and morgues that most people spend their entire lives trying to avoid. Apparently a non-believer, Roach posits the idea that death is the beginning of an exciting "second life" for our remains. It's an equally comforting and disturbing thought, but the author sticks with it, and some might find her curiosity and enthusiasm downright infectious.

It's also a great relief that Roach has a genuinely wonderful sense of humor to go along with her interest in dead bodies. Most comedians play off of death in one way or another to get laughs, of course, but Roach's jokes seem so spontaneous, and are often so insightful, that they make the delicate subject she's chosen much easier for readers to process. In a way, she becomes sort of a comic Tiresias, mapping out her readers' final journeys. "Stiff" is, in a sense, one of the most useful books ever published, since it deals, after all, with perhaps the only problem that we are all eventually forced to address. Better plan ahead.
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LibraryThing member boeflak
The most amazing wonderful book that I never expected to like.
LibraryThing member cazedbooker1
This book is very interesting, but only people who have iron stomachs shoud read this. The book includes lots of death, and decribes death very clearly. Overall a good read if you need to read a non-fiction book.
LibraryThing member karriethelibrarian
I really wasn't sure this was a book I wanted to read, but everyone kept telling me how great it was. I was hooked in the first chapter, and thoroughly enjoyed this interesting and thought provoking book. Mary Roach has taken a topic that is really kinda macabre, and has made it fascinating and...well, entertaining. In some places it is laugh-outloud funny.
Somehow I was able to separate myself from the descriptions of graverobbers, funeral rites, organ transplants, and the physiological effects of death on a body. I got so engrossed in this book that at one point I was reading it while I was eating dinner, only to realize that I was reading about the process of embalming as I put my fork in my mouth.
I enjoyed the way the book ended with the thought provoking topics of what she will do with her body when she dies.
Don't miss this book.
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LibraryThing member jaygheiser
This is a delightful and informative book. Handled differently, the author's mischevious irreverence could have been offensive, but she handles it so adroitly that you can't help laughing out loud. This book answers dozens of questions that you either did not dare to ask, or didn't know to ask, but if you didn't know, you would have asked them.… (more)
LibraryThing member jsmick
A very funny book about the business of what happens to bodies when they're donated to science. Experiments that are performed on them, what happens during cremation, what they can teach us, and a little on the American obsession with preservation. Amazingly, most families are happy to submit their (former) loved one to experiments if they believe it will help prevent future injury or death. I don't know if that's what i want done with my body - I especially don't want plastic surgeons performing rhinoplasty on my disembodied head.… (more)
LibraryThing member ViciousJ
I don't tend to read a huge amount of non-fiction but this book was fascinating for such a morbid subject. While I didn't realize the book was as old as it is (early 2000's), it was still really interesting and Roach has a very "common-man" way of approaching the subject and is seemingly fearless in her research. She divides the chapters between historical procedures and medical texts and modern day equivalents which assists in creating an overall picture of the topic being discussed. In particular, the chapters on cremation (and the future of) and decapition are particularily gruesome but interesting none-the-less. If you have a penchant for weird subjects, I'd highly recommend. A book like this can easily change your outlook on living wills/organ donation - which isn't to say it'll push you away or lead you to either, but that you understand more how the processes and results of each are.… (more)
LibraryThing member manguni
Although delivered in Roach's characteristicly goofy style, I found this book a refreshing discussion of a subject that is often taboo in American culture. The varied use of cadavers in the US is interesting in itself, but what Roach also manages to capture is the delicate way in which people who work in these professions must consider and present the nature of their work. This book says just as much about the way that American culture views death and the sacredness of the human body as it does about the practical uses of cadavers in a number of fields.… (more)


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