Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers


June 16, 2010

Author: Mary Roach
Title: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Genre: Nonfiction
Date of Publication: 2003
Geographical Setting: U.S. & Global
Time Period: Present
Plot Summary: “Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.” Writes Mary Roach as she takes a scientific approach (sprinkled with humorous commentary) to the subject of human bodies donated to research. What the public doesn’t know (or want to know?) are the various forms of scientific research for which human cadavers are used. When a body is donated to science, the donor and/or the donor’s family really have no say as to the area of research in which the body will be used. Roach covers several areas in her book, and she does so using very accessible language coupled with a wry sense of humor. She is neither disrespectful nor irreverent in her tone. Her descriptions and comments are delivered in a conversational manner, and her observations are objective. Stiff can be read in chapter order, or can be “dipped into” as one might read a collection of short stories. Roach begins by sharing an experience of observing a seminar for surgeons seeking to hone their skills in facial surgery. The doctors will only be working on the head of a patient, so they will practice exclusively on that part of the cadaver. This means that the heads used for the class are separated from their bodies. This first chapter ended with an unanswered question referring to the pupil less eyes of the cadavers. In another chapter, Roach discusses the obsolete practice of body snatching and the selling of corpses. The process of human decomposition is covered in disgusting detail. Cadavers are used as human crash test dummies and the military uses human cadavers to study the effects of bullets, weapons, and explosives on the human body. Casualties from a plane crash can tell their own story of the crash. By studying the victims’ wounds, an injury analyst can piece together fragments of events involved in the crash. “Beating-heart cadavers” are discussed as a relatively new term. This term refers to a person who has been declared brain-dead, after which their organs may be “harvested” for donor recipients. Roach follows this process with a female patient she calls “H” expressing that “H” is “a living, breathing, thriving person. It is strange, almost impossible, really, to think of her as a corpse.” In the historical period before death could be clinically and scientifically confirmed, the primitive methods for determining death are described, from jamming needles under toenails to thrusting a sharp pencil up the deceased’s nose. Of course, the only reliable way to determine absolute death was to delay burial of the body. The wait period had to be long enough to confirm the telltale signs of decomposition. This prevented the possibility of live burials, at least. Stiff even delves into the scientific study of the soul, its location in the body, and its weight. Decapitation, reanimation, and human head transplant theories are discussed. Roach describes experiments done in France with real human heads of decapitated criminals. The transplant experiments were done with animals. Experiments using human cadavers to simulate the effects of crucifixion have also been performed. In the last part of the book, Roach discusses medicinal cannibalism (not done in the U.S.). She writes about the medicinal use of mummified humans to benefit the living. The grossest details of uses of other body parts and/or byproducts (which will not be detailed here) are given as well. In China, aborted human fetuses are believed to have medicinal benefits when consumed. The final chapter deals with environmental issues surrounding traditional cremation, which consumes lots of energy. There are now safe and energy saving “green” methods that can be used to organically break down a corpse. What option is the author considering? She expresses some humorous considerations, but remains undecided.
Subject Headings: Human experimentation in medicine, dead, and human dissection.
Appeal Terms: morbidly fascinating, informative, humorous, medical, technical, enlightening, revealing, educational, unsettling, detailed, engaging, bizarre, and quirky.
Three terms that best describe this book: morbidly fascinating, human dissection, and humorous.
Relevant Nonfiction Works and Authors:
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson is probably the funniest book available about the history of science. Bryson, a well-known humor writer, discusses the Big Bang Theory, particle physics, geology, evolution, and science throughout history to the present. He takes his experiences observing, gathering, and researching, and turns them into funny stories.
Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures by Carl Zimmer is a thorough study of the relationship between humans and parasites. Zimmer gives disturbing accounts of parasites that are dangerous to humans as well as those that are beneficial. He artfully balances the disgusting and the scientific.
The Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell takes the reader to various historical landmarks and museums that have become significant due to assassinations. She covers the Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley assassinations with her trademark wit and sarcastic humorous commentaries compiling a rather bizarre travel guide.
Relevant Fiction Works and Authors:
The Immortals by Tracy Hickman is a medical thriller that depicts governmental extermination of targeted citizens who have contracted a dreaded virus in epidemic proportions. Chilling accounts of the main character’s discoveries make it a gripping read.

Crisis by Robin Cook takes place in the courtroom and the hospital as a malpractice trial unfolds. In this spellbinding story, the wife of the defendant asks her medical examiner brother to exhume the body in question and perform an autopsy in hopes of clearing her husband. All are surprised at results of the autopsy and their significance.

Deadly Harvest by Leonard S. Goldberg portrays forensic pathologist Joanna Blalock urgently seeking a liver for her dying sister. She retains the services of what she believes to be a legitimate organ-transplant service, but discovers that the business obtains its donors through questionable means. While the mystery unravels, time is running out for Joanna’s sister. This is the second book in a medical/detective series.


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