‘Stiff’ makes cadavers delectable

I’m a lover of fiction, but I’m no stranger to the nonfiction section. As a biology major, I have a firm background in the sciences and enjoy reading about them. Like many of you, scientists or not, I have a passion for learning new things. All of these factors combined to make Mary Roach’s “Stiff” a wonderful read for me.

Roach’s other books include “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex” and “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife,” but she cut her teeth on the question of what happens to our bodies when we die.

Her first book, “Stiff,” carries the subtitle “The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.” It brings heaps of information and years of research in the form of easy-to-digest chapters on such topics as medical school anatomy cadavers and organ transplantation.

Written in a chatty and humorous style, “Stiff” aims both to inform and entertain. It begins to do so in the very first sentence, offering Roach’s opinion that “the way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship” because “most of your time is spent lying on your back.”

The author’s macabre humor and intelligent wit may seem out of place or disrespectful to some, but to me it struck just the right note. For a book with so much to teach us about the hidden situations after our deaths, it reads easily and is quite far off from being a textbook.

Roach has a history as a newspaper columnist, and her writing is professional and easy to understand. Even when speaking of technical topics or in relaying information collected from experts, she makes science approachable. You do not need a degree in the sciences to understand Roach’s work. Roach herself does not have one.

There is even something for the history buff. Entire chapters are dedicated to historical uses for cadavers. Dissection of humans was once outlawed, and anatomy labs in colleges relied on “resurrectionists” to rob graves for fresh corpses to dissect.

In 19th-century Scotland a pair of serial murderers eked out a living selling the bodies of those they killed. In ancient China, body parts were said to have health effects if consumed.

Be warned: There are some gruesome concepts. As one might expect for a book about cadavers, it contains sometimes vivid descriptions of unpleasant scenarios.

One chapter focuses on the lab where forensic experts learn about larval growth in corpses. Another details a medical conference where plastic surgeons practice face lifts on donated cadaver heads.

If you are interested in medicine, science, history or even just curious about the human condition, I suggest checking out this book. Despite its subject matter it is not depressing (save one chapter) and is more likely to make you laugh than cry. It’s a fun and interesting read, and you’ll hardly even notice you’re learning.


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