Title: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Author: Mary Roach
Genre: Non-fiction, science
Publication date: 2003
Purchase price: $10
Today’s blog is all about serendipitous finds. Sometime during the summer of 2003, I was wandering around Barnes and Noble with my father. I didn’t have any particular purchases in mind, so I was just wandering around a bit aimlessly.
When I first saw Stiff, I called my dad over to look at it mostly because of the cover: it’s a photo of a pair of toe-tagged feet (the toe tag holds the book’s main title). It was so odd and intriguing that I literally could not stop myself from reading the back cover, if only to see what the heck this book could be about.
And of course, once I read the summary, I just had to buy it. And I’ve been hooked on Mary Roach ever since.
Mary Roach is a fantastically detailed, intelligent, and hilarious writer, whose works have been featured in Salon, Wired, GQ, and even the New York Times Magazine. And like many writers, Roach tends to get involved in her work.
In what I can only imagine is a strange story of “way [leading] onto way,” Roach ended up writing her first book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.
This book is about the unnamed heroes who have, knowingly or not, donated their bodies to science. These unselfish people have been slammed, exploded, sliced, and even shot and crucified — all in the name of saving and/or bettering the lives of those they’ve left behind.
I know — the topic is perhaps a little macabre. And there are indeed moments of Stiff when I found myself thinking, “This can’t be real.” But Roach is nothing if not thorough and honest.
Roach is, in my opinion, one of the best authors writing today. Her books are fabulous combinations of fact, history, science, psychology, and humor. The author is also unafraid to express her own personal thoughts regarding what she is researching — she interjects her own thoughts, feelings, and experiences into her books.
She’s also amazingly funny, without being disrespectful to either the people who donate themselves, or the scientists who perform tests on the deceased. Roach is delightfully witty and sarcastic, and it makes for great reading.
Stiff details what kinds of things your body could end up doing if donated to science. Ever wanted a face-lift? Chances are you’ll get one in death. Wanted to help save the lives of our men and women overseas? You could be of assistance in death — and it’s extra easy for you, because bullets and bombs don’t really concern a cadaver.
Roach also talks about the various ways people can go. Cremation and burial are discussed, of course, but wouldn’t you like to learn more about cannibalism and being freeze-frozen for compost? And if you’re interested in helping students and museum-goers learn about the human body, plastination may be for you.
Some of it’s creepy, some is a bit gory, and all of it is worth learning. If you read nothing else this year, read Stiff. You will not regret it.
Mary Roach has written two other books, both of which are just as fantastic as Stiff.
- Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
- Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
Epic! In doing research for this blog post, I’ve discovered that Roach will have a fourth book published sometime in August 2010! It breaks with tradition in the fact that it doesn’t have a one-word main title, but I’m willing to forgive her for that. Check out Packing for Mars.
Get them all. Read them all. If you don’t love at least one of them, I will eat my shoe.
When the Saints Go Marching In (Dukes of Dixieland)
“Rick hands me the trigger string and counts down from three. The gelatin sits on the table, soaking up the sunshine, basking beneath the calm, blue Tennessee skies — tra la la, life is gay, it’s good to be a gelatin block, I…BLAM!” (p. 141)
“Here is the unnerving thing: The heart, cut from the chest, keeps beating on its own. Did Poe know this when he wrote ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’? So animated are these freestanding hearts that surgeons have been known to drop them.” (p. 179)
“I wanted very badly to see the report of this experiment, so I called INSCOM. I was referred to a gentleman in the history section. First the historian said that INSCOM didn’t keep records back that far. I didn’t need any of the man’s cheek cells to know he was lying. This is the U.S. government. They keep records of everything, in triplicate and from the dawn of time.” (p. 184)
“Given that minor ailments such as bruises, coughs, dyspepsia, and flatulence disappear on their own in a matter of days, it’s easy to see how rumors of efficacy came about. Controlled trials were unheard of; everything was based on anecdotal evidence. We gave Mrs. Peterson some shit for her quinsy and now she’s doing fine!” (p. 228)
What do you think about scientists performing experiments on the dead? What if destroying a handful of cadavers would save thousands of lives, as is the case with crash testing? Would you donate your body to science? What about the body of a parent, sibling, or spouse?