Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers - Mary Roach

Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers―some willingly, some unwittingly―have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. In this fascinating account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.






When BookRiot first released the categories for their Read Harder Challenge this year, one category was "microhistory". The GoodReads group page was immediately flooded with "WTH is microhistory?" These posts were then followed up by dozens of people recommending this book, Stiff by Mary Roach. Having an unread copy sitting on my own shelves for some time, I figured I might as well finally knock it out. 


Stiff approaches the topic of death and what happens to the body after the soul leaves from a purely academic curiosity standpoint. The thing that I thought made Roach's book unique to others that have covered this topic was Roach's own writing style, her comedic approach to what could otherwise be an uncomfortable subject to delve into for many. You might be concerned that that might open the writing up to distasteful jokes but Roach makes a point to note that each body she came in contact with during her research, she fully acknowledged was a beloved family member not long ago and was treated with due courtesy. Some other examples she offers:


>> University of California San Francisco carries out a 3 HOUR memorial service (I'm not sure of the frequency other than I believe it's done each year, possibly each semester?) for all cadavers donated to their medical department for research & teaching purposes.


>> She notes that in her research she discovered that some medical colleges across the country are actually trying to phase out of using full body human cadavers, instead trying to implement more use of pre-embalmed (specific) body parts, while other colleges are trying to push for full 3D digital imagery in place of cadavers (for use in teaching surgical techniques). She brings this up in the very first chapter when describing her experience sitting in on a class that was using severed cadaver heads to teach plastic surgery and facial reconstruction techniques.. and what an initially traumatizing sight it seemed to be for the students. Honestly, until I read this chapter, I never gave much thought on how plastic surgeons learn to do things like face lifts. Now it's hard to watch Botched the same way!



Roach uses some unique, sometimes odd, seemingly unrelated images to start off each chapter. For example, this Wizard Of Oz image introduces the topic of

a body's decaying process. 



Roach also notes the various uses of animals (largely because of their super sensitive sniffers) in detecting illness in people still living or picking up on clues at crime scenes that might otherwise go unnoticed. As gruesome as it is, I did find it fascinating to read that dogs have the ability to sniff water and pick up the scent of the gas being released from fatty molecules breaking down from submerged decomposing bodies. They're also able to pick up scents of bodies left on land up to 14 months after date of death! Speaking of the animals though, I do want to warn readers that some of the chapters on animals do make for some of the most difficult reading in the entire book (at least for me, anyway), particularly when she gets into what scientists have done to animals throughout history, in the name of science, when cadavers were not readily available. I'm giving you a heads up now, it's not pleasant reading there. 


While I found myself flying through many of the chapters pretty quickly, because -- can't help it --  I love me some weird and twisted history, there were parts that I felt ran a bit long -- the two worst sections for this being (again, just my own opinion here) chapter 11 "Out Of The Fire" and the section on the history and use of human crash test dummies (either chapter 4-5). 


But as I mentioned earlier, the bit that impressed me the most with this book was Mary Roach's own brand of humor and how it takes some of the awkwardness out of the topic for the reader.


With improvements in stethoscopes and gains in medical knowledge, physicians began to trust themselves to be able to tell when a heart had stopped, and medical science came to agree that this was the best way to determine whether a patient had checked out for good or was merely down the hall getting ice. 


Some sections honestly had me laughing out loud, while others... well, I still found myself laughing but maybe with a slight cringe. The cringe-laugh struck me especially during that first chapter when Roach describes going to that class featuring cadaver heads. One doctor left the class saying to the head "May she rest in peace" but Roach makes the joke "I heard rest in pieces." Those mildly off-color moments are rare though, for the most part I found her humor perfectly okay, if on the dark side, and right in line with my own (though...not sure what that says about me, lol). And I do have to agree with Roach that while it's great that medical knowledge grows leaps and bounds with each generation, it is a shame that we've lost the more quaint words of yesteryear such as "dropsy" and "scrofula" to terms now largely unpronounceable to those suffering from the conditions.