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Stiff – The curious lives of human cadavers

Originally published in November and December 2004, in 4 parts. Book 42 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Mary Roach
Year published: 2003
Pages: 303
Genre: Popular science, biology
Where got:

Mom, Dad, what happens after we die?

This is a classic question most parents dread having to answer. While this book doesn’t answer the philosophical/theological part of the question – what happens to the soul? - it does claim to contain answers to the biological part, namely: what happens to the body?

Reading progress for Stiff:
Stiff is proving to be an interesting read. Roach writes in a matter-of-fact journalistic style that makes the subject seem less grim than it really is, but she does on occasion become a bit too flippant about it, I guess in an attempt to distance herself. Although she uses humour to ease the grimness, the jokes – which, by the way, are never about the dead, only the living, especially Roach herself – often fall flat. Perhaps it’s just me, but this is a serious subject and I’d like to see it handled as such, even in a popular science book like this one.

Roach is careful not to be overly descriptive or overly scientific, which makes the book (at least those chapters I’ve read) accessible to people who want to know about these things, just not in too much detail. Even so, I have been very careful not to read the book just before or during meals, as there are limits even to what my strong stomach can take.

Stiff links
These links are to articles on You have to watch a a short commercial before reading the whole text.

Read an excerpt: Dead man decomposing

Interview with the author: Over your dead body

The Stiff review
Contents, technique and effects:

This isn’t a scientific book. Roach writes from the point of view of an informed and slightly prejudiced layperson about the natural and “unnatural” things that can happen to people’s bodies after they die. The description of what happens if nature is allowed to take its course – decay - is brief and tied in with the use of human cadavers in forensics research. The treatment of cadavers in mortuaries – cosmetic touch-ups and embalming - is discussed in the same chapter and there is also a chapter on methods of disposal, other than burial, such as cremation, liquification and composting. The rest of the chapters are about how scientists and doctors use donated cadavers and body parts in such varied fields as life saving body-part transplants, plastic surgery courses and anatomy classes, automobile and air-crash research, forensics and ballistics research. Other chapters contain historical accounts of all kinds of crazy and weird (and occasionally quite useful) stuff – including body-snatching and mellification - people got up to with cadavers in the name of science, medicine and religion. As far as I can see, the only widely known practice that is not discussed is mummification, although the (stomach-churning) use of mummies in medicine is mentioned.

All in all, this is good reading for people who are curious about these things, but not curious enough to want pictures and details. Roach speaks of the dead with respect and has a few words of sarcasm for people who mistreat (by that I mean "use them unnecessarily or disrespectfully") dead bodies and/or torture animals in the name of research.

As I said earlier, Roach writes in a journalistic style that fits the subject and makes the book more accessible to the public than a purely dispassionate and dry scientific style would have. There is humour in the book which sometimes comes across as flippant, but also breaks the seriousness of the text. The flippancy seems to be mostly in the first chapters, but there is humour throughout the book, although not the laugh-aloud kind. Roach is not afraid of revealing her own preconceptions and prejudices and makes fun of herself and her near obsession with morbid subjects throughout the book.

Although the subject is morbid at first glance, there is actually nothing morbid about the book. It is, in fact, strangely upbeat and enlivening, especially for someone like me who is going through the grieving process for a loved one. Knowing what happens to the body after death is helping me to let go, which is a good thing, a part of the healing process.

Rating: An interesting and enlightening look at what can happen and what does happen to our bodies after we die. 3+ stars.


Dorte H said…
I have thought about this one more than once, but as a crime writer I´d probably need something more scientific. The problem is that the books I have come across written by experts are awfully boring. They don´t know the least bit about making the stuff interesting.
Bibliophile said…
Dorte, I suggest you read it anyway - it may not be as scientific as you would need to supply details for a crime story, but it might give you ideas...

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