“We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.”
― Mary Roach,
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach is non-fiction work first published in 2003. It details the unique scientific contributions of the deceased.
Yeah. . Umm…This was a really strange book and I really liked it although I wouldn’t recommend reading my review with a cup of coffee…or anything edible.
Opening line of the book: “The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back.The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.” is probably what got me into this book. Roach has a very different approach to the topic and she’s very humorous about that approach.
Stiff covers a wide set of topics. Starting from the beginning of dissecting bodies and how body snatching occurred. Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes in the UK were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. And this was considered fate worse than death because how can you get to heaven if you’re all chopped up? So they had to steal bodies from cemeteries. Renowned doctors would criticize this in public and support it monetarily in private… I’m glad how times have changed and how doctors and surgeons don’t have to go in blind.
“The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I seen a head in a roasting pan.”
― Mary Roach,
Then, we move onto how cadavers for used as crash test dummies. You could use normal dummies but then you wouldn’t know which bones are most likely to crush in a car accident. And then all the other interesting topics like: crucifixion experiments, beating heart cadavers, decapitation, cannibalism and alternative ways to burying and cremation…
This is a terribly important book. And I think it’s good to get out of your comfort zone (very much so with this one) and to think differently about some issue. I think for so many years, this was exactly the reason why dissecting humans was not allowed. Because people found it unmoral. But is it worse than letting people die? And they tried to learn by using pigs or primates and obviously unsuccessfully. Even if the dead feet here are quite disgusting…in the end, they’re just feet.
Stiff was very entertaining read. I never would have expected to like this book this much.
How-To Read Stiff
1.It’s great nonfiction. But you kind of need to stomach the topic first. Stop thinking of corpses and start thinking about cadavers who have a lot to tell us. Stop thinking about all the reasons why they are now what they are…
2. Then you will start wonder why things like dead bodies are funny. Or maybe it’s Roach’s storytelling. Either way, it’s ok. It happens.
3. I liked the audio version. Maybe reading all the “cadaver” words wasn’t as gross as hearing them?
“Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.”
― Mary Roach,
Featured image: In the morgue by Allsha Vargas (link)