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Review: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach


Pages: 303
Original date of publication: 2003
My edition: 2003 (Norton)
Why I decided to read: saw the author speak at a conference
How I acquired my copy: Denver airport, October 2012

I saw Mary Roach speak at the annual meeting of the American Medical Writers Association in Sacramento at the beginning of October, where she was presented with an award at a luncheon I attended. Her talk was so humorous and interesting that on my way home I was able to find copies of her books in a (gasp!) real bookstore in the Denver airport (I saw Flaubert lurking behind the counter along with Jane Eyre).

For Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Roach harangued everyone from morticians to doctors to body farm personnel others whose work brings them in proximity to cadavers. In this book we see how cadavers are used for everything from medical student anatomy lessons to crash test dummies (the impact that cars have on cadavers is more realistic than if they were to use crash dummies such as you see on TV) to forensic pathology research. Roach even went out of her way to investigate a rumor she heard about two brothers in China who served the buttocks of human cadavers as “Sichuan-style dumplings” to restaurant customers.

Mary Roach tells these stories with a mixture of fascination and humor, and even irreverence at times. She’s certainly not squeamish, either in the dissection lab or walking through a body farm. She often goes off on to personal tangents about what one thing might remind her of, etc., which adds humor to her narrative. She’s not a scientist by any means, but I really enjoyed this entertaining book. One of the times that you have to do when working with the dead it to condition yourself not to think about it in a morbid sense, which is why Roach uses humor to mask feeling.

I do wish, though, that Roach had talked a little bit more about the legal and ethical issues that lie behind using a cadaver for human subjects research—I’ve never seen it as an issue, but people seem to get awfully worked up about what happens to their loved ones after they’ve died. What about issues such as consent? Although it might have been outside the parameters of the book, it would have been interesting if the author had touched on the subject as little bit more. But other than that, I really enjoyed this book (and it got me some odd stares at the cover of the book as I was reading it in Starbucks one morning).

Comments

Andi said…
This is one of my favorite books. I enjoyed the mixture of fact and humor and found it balanced, well-intentioned, and it never felt disrespectful. Love love love Mary Roach.
fiftyfinally said…
I thoroughly enjoyed this book...but left instruction with all my children..."no embalming under any circumstances" . Everyone should read this book. Everytime (daily unfortunatly) I put on makeup and have to look at my jowels where my cheekbones used to be...or is it my cheekbones where my jowels are now...I am reminded of this book.

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