Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"Stiff" by Mary Roach

Summary: A nonfiction look into human cadavers.

Musings: I enjoyed Roach's Packing for Mars (her book on space travel) and was hoping for a similar light and engaging look into another subject I know almost nothing about: human cadavers.  Stiff certainly has the same formula as Packing for Mars, though overall I found it less interesting, perhaps because the science and history of cadavers is significantly more limited than that of space travel.

Roach addresses a couple of basic areas involving cadavers.  First, she covers the research angle, including medical school anatomy, organ donation, forensic research, and safety testing.  Here, Roach focuses on both what happens to the bodies and the researchers' feelings working with dead humans.  The descriptions of the cadavers can be a bit grotesque (this is not a book for the squeamish) and the questions to the researchers somewhat repetitive (typically they try to be respectful but also create distance between themselves and the idea of the cadaver as a human).  Later in the book, Roach explores cannibalism and issues of body disposal.

More than anything else, Stiff is a look into our complicated history with dead bodies, which are both lifeless objects and loved ones.  Much is made of "public outcry" over using bodies in any way, though I side with the researchers (and Roach) in believing that a dead body is an object and that it's more respectful to use that body in a way that helps the living than to let it rot in a coffin (which is no less disgusting).

I was especially intrigued by Roach's visit to Sweden, where one woman is promoting composting cadavers, which would then be used to fertilize a memorial tree or plant.  I'm hoping such technology will be available in the U.S. by the time I go; being buried in a coffin seems wasteful, and this method does more good than cremation.

Roach keeps her trademark light tone (which I like) in this book, though even I thought her questions and probing at times became inappropriate.  Her style seemed to work better in Packing for Mars, where she might annoy astronauts and scientists, but not offend.

Individual chapters of Stiff are certainly worthwhile, though I would recommend the book as a whole only to those with a particular interest.


  1. This was my second read of hers as well, but I liked it much more than Spook where I found her to be grossly offensive. I've yet to try Packing for Mars, though.

  2. Hm, I'll have to skip Spook then. I consider myself a pretty irreverent person, and I'm not easily put off, but she just rubbed me the wrong way in Stiff. Maybe the tone will be better with Bonk.