Book Review: Stiff

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

By Mary Roach

Published April 21, 2003

W.W. Norton & Company

304 pp.

ISBN 0-393-32482-6

Reviewed December 3, 2010

It’s the great mystery in the universe that we can never know what happens to us after we die. It’s the journey that no one has ever sent a postcard from after taking, the question that has spurred countless philosophers and religions to great discussion, and one that everyone ponders at least once a day. Try as we might to get past it, we can’t avoid the fact that some day we will all find ourselves passing on to something we can never get a hold of, leaving nothing behind but the piece of meat and bone that carried us through our daily grind.

But while the fate of our consciousness after death is one that cannot be measured, the fate of that piece of meat is one that’s easier to quantify – and as Mary Roach shows in “Stiff,” just because a body is dead doesn’t mean its experiences are over. Over the course of history, human corpses have been boiled, mashed, stuck in stews, chopped up, shot to pieces and put to ten thousand other uses across the spectrum of morality. In “Stiff,” Roach unflinchingly explores the myriad and grisly uses these cadavers come to, and in the process weaves a quirky and unique narrative of life after death.

Beginning with a simple curiosity about what happens to human bodies that aren’t simply buried – a “foreign land between the cracks” as the author puts it – “Stiff” follows cadavers through a plethora of final fates. Roach travels to cosmetology schools, decay research facilities and shooting ranges, chronicling how scientists and doctors are using the cadavers to learn and teach things no live subject would ever consent to. She also expands her search to the shocking and bizarre events of the past, going back to experiments to replicate the circumstances of the Crucifixion and just how long a head can survive after it has been severed by a guillotine.

As Roach mentions early on, once a body is donated to science it has no control over where it eventually ends up, and “Stiff” similarly goes in all directions as it explores the various possibilities with a mix of contemporary studies and involved historical research. One chapter that begins in an anatomy lab memorial service for cadavers jumps into a discussion of body snatching in 1700s England, while the next switches between a body left in the sun for three weeks and the origins of arterial embalming. The breadth of the subject means that no stone is left unturned – that is, unless the stone is on a cadaver and being unturned is part of the experiment.

Roach however manages to keep all these disparate links together, chiefly through her entertaining writing style. Thanks to various quips at the historical subjects (the “father of embalming” asked not to be embalmed himself, “though whether this was a function of sanity or insanity was never made clear”) and a legitimate curiosity about those who spend their time around human bodies (“What I do is, I think of them as wax” is one option), it’s hard to ever feel bogged down or lost on her journey. Special praise goes to the transitions between sections and chapters in the way they establish common threads: One chapter ends talking about an organ donor (“H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her”) and the next begins by discussing the idea of souls, which leads to brains as their resting place, which leads to the idea of human head transplants.

If anyone does have trouble going from section to section, it will likely be because of the subject matter rather than the writing – much of “Stiff” is not for those with weak stomachs. The breadth of topics makes it very engrossing, but it regularly teeters to the “gross” part of the equation by turning up experiments like the creation of a two-headed dog (a “lively, puppylike, if not altogether joyous existence” for the new head) and just where human excrement falls into the medicine cabinets of ancient civilizations. “Stiff’s” subject matter tends to be far from polite dinner table conversation, and the odds are good that readers will take a break in between sections such as this decay research observation:

“Arpad walks around to the corpse’s left foot. It is bluish and the skin is transparent. ‘See under the skin? They’re eating the subcutaneous fat. They love fat.’ I see them. They are spaced out, moving slowly. It’s kind of beautiful, this man’s skin with these tiny white slivers embedded just beneath its surface. It looks like expensive Japanese rice paper. You tell yourself these things.”

But despite being confronted with these observations, Roach never backs down from getting close with the cadavers – either whole or in part. While she frequently turns to a dry, Wodehousian black humor there’s also a strong respect for the choice these people made when alive to commit their earthly remains, and observes the bodies with a quiet fascination. She strengthens this commitment by including interviews with several truly devoted experts in the field, ranging from an injury analyst who studies corpses after crashes to a Swedish woman spearheading a movement for human composting. None of her subjects are ghouls who get off on manipulating the dead, but matter-of-fact individuals who happen to work with dead bodies to learn something new.

And that leads to the real strength of “Stiff” – it’s certainly full of fascinating data and presents itself well, but it still carries the appropriate gravitas its subject material deserves. Roach is at all times aware of the fact that her subjects were once alive, and that at the core what’s on the table in front of her is only a few degrees separate from each of us: “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.” In “Stiff,” Roach shows us that maybe we shouldn’t try to forget it, because even after we’re dead – and possibly destined for a biology class – we’re still innately fascinating.

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