Cover ImageI can say (somewhat truthfully) that Mary Roach gave me this book. 

OK, so the author didn’t give it to me.  I almost bought this book a while ago because I work with a woman named Mary Roach.  Since she’s our resident expert on all things medicine, and mysterious about everything else in her life, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she secretly authored this book (of course the author photo would have been doctored har har). When I told her this, she not only laughed, she said she had the book and brought it in for me. 

I wasn’t really sure if I was actually going to like this book. I’ve read many treatises on obscure, seemingly interesting topics and most of them, though well intended, fail miserably to be interesting.

Not so this book.

 Stiff is definitely not for the squeamish.  Though it’s more accessible than I first thought (it was a New York Times Bestseller, which is a prime indicator that the masses liked it.  Or maybe Opera endorsed it.).  It could be subtitled “The Cultural History of the Cadaver.”  Because it’s not about death or the process of dying – it’s about dead people.  And they’re everywhere.

There are the typical ways to deal with a corpse (sounds more polite doesn’t it?) like cremation, mortuary practices (aside: to keep the eye sockets looking normal, since they do not contain eyeballs, pearl onions are inserted), plastination (interestingly this book was written before Body Worlds came to America) and compost.  Wait compost?  That’s right.  Talk about recycling.

Then there are the fascinating if somewhat strange ways cadavers have been integrated into the scientific world as crash test subjects, test subjects for bullets and explosives, for decomposition research, and anatomical practice for surgeons.  Oh, and don’t forget crucifixion research.  You’ll have to read about that one.  I’m not touching it.

 A very interesting theme that kept cropping up was our society’s extreme reluctance to use dead people for research when we are perfectly happy (well OK, maybe not happy but comfortable) to use live (usually anesthetized) animals.  This still seems very warped to me.  Dead people don’t have dignity; they don’t feel embarrassment.  Our concern for the livingis laudable  (who wants to imagine granddad getting blown to bits by a land mine), but at the expense of hundreds of innocent living creatures?  I don’t think so.  The author would agree, for she doesn’t hide her amazement and concern about this.

The author is clearly fascinated with her subject, and that is irresistable to the reader.  You can’t help but follow her as she wanders through the various occupations of the dead taking flippant, funny and often sarcastic notes.  We might raise an eyebrow, but of course, we don’t have the deal with the smell.