Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

by Mary Roach

Paperback, 2004

Status

Available

Publication

W. W. Norton & Company, (2004)

Description

Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers-some willingly, some unwittingly-have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. In this fascinating account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.

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 Salon.com 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 Antholo
Wow. You can do a lot of cool shizz after you kick it. Decomposition, medical research, accident research, military research, teaching aid, composting, etc. Roach gets pretty descriptive, and I often felt like, "why am I listening to this?" But I was compelled to continue listening. It was too interesting to stop.

This was a fantastic audiobook for my commute. It's really hard to fall asleep at the wheel while cringing and squirming. It wasn't great for those lunchtime commutes, but I lived.

Shelly Frasier's reading reflects Roach's curiosity and sarcasm realistically--you forget that someone is reading a book to you. I like it when a reader can do that.
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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 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 (...in 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 kattepusen
**1/2

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 ASBiskey
This book is not funny. Or maybe I have an insensitivity to humor. I did not “laugh out loud” as other reviewers have. There were a few times that I was amused. The funniest thing in the whole book to me was the first paragraph of the introduction that compared death to a cruise, and I laughed at what that said about cruises.

While I do not think this book is funny, I did find it in general to be interesting, well-written, informative, and respectful. I enjoyed this book because the author put less of herself and more information in than she did in the other book by her that I read, Packing for Mars. She covers a variety of possibilities of the physical afterlife. While she offers many descriptions that may be disgusting and gory, she does so in a professional manner that is not intended to be gross, but explain what is happening. While some of the topics may be sensational, such as cannibalism and head transplants, she stays on topic and for presents relevant information, for the most part. I have to commend her for her obviously thorough research.

I was grateful that there was a greater focus on the topics and subjects of her interviews and less of her personality in this book than in Packing for Mars. I am glad I read this and do recommend it. It may be uncomfortable at times for the squeamish, but anyone who is willing to start reading in spite of the title should be fine.
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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 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 katgallery
loved it. it was the perfect amount of morbidity and humor.
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 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 research...you'll just have to ignore the odd looks you may get from anyone who sees you with it.… (more)
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 SmithSJ01
She clearly has a great sense of humour and the beginning of this book was promising. In fact the beginning was brilliant. I was looking forward to learning a lot whilst being entertained. Within half an hour neither was happening. It is a fascinating topic which I felt was not done justice. I expected to be cringing and enthralled. I started to skip through some of the chapters in the hope something else interesting would come along. But sadly for me it didn't. I know plenty of others who have enjoyed it but I just haven't been able to get the same level of enjoyment. Perhaps if she'd looked at the more obscure aspects of death I might have been interested.… (more)
LibraryThing member HoraceSPatoot
Admit it. You're curious too. Just be glad that Mary Roach went to those places and recorded it in such a way that you don't have to.

This was a very entertaining and clever book that did not appear "forced" to me at all. It's one of those books that lead you to annoy those around you as you groan, sigh, hoot, and say "Whoa!"

This book won't make a better person of you, but it will help you pass a few curious hours, if you're like me. Others, like my wife, won't even want it left face up on the coffee table.
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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 boeflak
The most amazing wonderful book that I never expected to like.
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 ElDoradoHills
I’m noticing that most of my recommendations require a disclaimer of sorts. This book requires a stomach for the goriest of descriptions and the ability to be fascinated, not disgusted, by the daily tasks of coroners.
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)

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Original language

English

Barcode

6680
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