Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach


“Death. It doesn't have to be boring.” 

This line comes from Mary Roach's non-fiction marvel, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and boy is she right. Working as practice subjects for plastic surgery procedures, crash test dummies, and, in instances I hope happened a very long time ago and are never to be repeated, as bite sized honey-steeped confectionery medicine, cadavers are anything but boring. Although, it should be noted that upwards of 80% of all cadavers are used in anatomy labs, being cut open in the name of helping the next generation of doctor's not irreversibly screw up on a living person is still a pretty interesting story to tell around Heaven's water cooler. 

As you can see from the title, Stiff is an exploration of the many different ways human cadavers can be used, almost always to the benefit of the still living. The book was published in 2003, though, so some of the information is out of date. For instance, there are now six body farms operating in the United States (you'll learn what a body farm is when you read the book. Hint: it's not a place to take the children.) However, that is no reason to not read the book because, in addition to Roach's adventures in the current use of cadavers (current in 2003, may I remind you), she also delved into the use of human cadavers throughout history. Which, if I may be blunt, was insane. The only parts of the book that ever made me squeamish happened in the past…because someone had to be the first to try a full head transplant, and it happened during a time when immunosuppressant drugs didn't exist. Yikes.

Speaking of squeamish, this could be a book you don't want to read over breakfast, which I did every single day. Breakfast is my reading time. I can relax with a hot cup of tea and some banana nut oatmeal…which began to resemble decomposing organs and brain tissue by the end of the book. Also, if you think human bodies--even human bodies recently separated from a soul--should always be treated with the utmost respect and care, then this book may not be for you. Cadavers are always people who, while alive, willingly signed over their bodies to science, but the process can seem a little crass when they are hit with a sledgehammer to see how much force a shoulder can stand before it breaks. So, stay away if that idea bothers you.

While this book wasn't the hilarious laugh-fest almost every single person who recommended it to me promised, it was incredibly interesting. Don't get me wrong, Mary Roach made me laugh, but the litany of ways a body can spend it's post-living days isn't exactly the stuff comedy routines are made of. It's a tough subject, and Roach made it just about as funny as it could be, which is to be commended. 

Overall, this book is going to make me a riot at the next funeral I attend. Er--maybe not. Either way, I learned things I never knew I wanted to learn about the history of cadavers, and I'd recommend this book to anyone who watches as many crime shows as I do (A LOT). 

Also, become an organ donor. It's one check of a box at the DMV and you can save someone's life. Plus, what do you really need your kidney's for when you're laying in a coffin or chilling in an urn or being used as compost to nourish a plant? (That was another topic in the book. It's really very interesting. You should read it.)

Happy Reading,