STIFF by Mary Roach

Stiff_The_Curious_Lives_of_Human_Cadavers_coverThis was a fascinating book about dead people.   Specifically about cadavers, corpses, bodies, carcasses, remains.  Right.  Non-fiction, just in case you hadn’t guessed.  It’s all about the uses for the human body after its owner has departed this vale of tears.   She looks at the myth of human dumplings, the ghoulish history of nineteenth-century body-snatching, investigates  experiments involving crucifixion to check the veracity of the Turin Shroud, takes a gander at the present-day Body Farm, plastic-surgery labs and attends conferences on human composting.

The book is all about history of the uses of cadavers in scientific exploration.  And there’s that head transplant thing, too.  I know you will enjoy that part.

Mary Roach is a journalist-writer.  She is the author of Packing for Mars – The Curious Science of Life in the Void.   And she hit another home run with this book, which, in spite of its potentially morbid aspect, was really, really fun and interesting.

For every surgical procedure developed, from heart transplants to gender reassignment surgery, cadavers have been there alongside the surgeons, making history in their own quiet sundered way.  For two thousand years, cadavers — some willingly, some unwittingly — have been involved in science’s boldest strides and weirdest undertakings.  Cadavers were around to help test France’s first guillotine, the “humane” alternative to hanging.  They were there at the labs of Lenin’s embalmers, helping test the latest techniques.  They’ve been there (on paper) at Congressional hearings, helping make the case for mandatory seat belts.  They’ve ridden the Space Shuttle (okay, pieces of them), helped a graduate student in Tennessee debunk spontaneous human combustion, been crucified in a Parisian laboratory to test the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin.

Mary Roach has one of those ironic senses of humor.  She says that this is a book about the sometimes odd, often shocking, always compelling things cadavers have done.

Not that there’s anything wrong with just lying around on your back.  In its way, rotting is interesting too.

That’s when she talks about the body farms, where scientists study how a human body decomposes.  Needless to say, it is a rather odoriferous undertaking, and after visiting the work in progress, she and the scientists chose to eat lunch at a restaurant with outdoor seating, so as not to distress the other patrons.  You betcha.

She compares being dead with being on a cruise.

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.

She’s got a point there, doesn’t she.

Do read it.  Widen your world, enrich your life, and start thinking about career choices for when you are a former person.



5 comments on “STIFF by Mary Roach

  1. Mary Smith says:

    Ooh, it sounds fascinating. Human dumplings?

  2. Mary Smith says:

    Just bought it for son’s Christmas stocking (he’s a medical student) and found another by her called Gulp – couldn’t resist it.

  3. Deb Atwood says:

    Sounds really interesting…and a must-read for mystery writers.

  4. […] already read three other books by her,  Six Feet Over  – Adventures in the Afterlife,  Stiff, about bodies and dead people, and Packing for Mars – The Curious Science of Life in the […]

  5. […] writes non-fiction about some fun topics.  You can read about Packing for Mars here.   And Stiff here,  Six Feet Over-Adventures in the Afterlife here,  and My Planet […]

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