Book Review – Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers By Mary Roach

Books like this make my world go round. Really. It was also an NYT best-seller, so chances are good I am not the only one who loved the heck out of it. But why?

Firstly, I love non-fiction. I feel like I am getting two for the price of one when I read a really great non-fiction book: an education and the pleasure of reading the words of someone skilled at their craft – the pleasure of reading for it’s own sake.

Secondly, good ones are often hard to come by. Some writers can get so absorbed in their subject matter that they forget the book might not be read by scholars but rather laymen interested in the topic. Other writers may lack the finesse needed to pull non-fiction off, and the finished product can be dry and uninteresting. But when the two things come together well – immense knowledge of a topic and great word-smithing – it’s a complete delight to me.

Mary Roach nails it with this book. She investigates every single aspect of what can be our “life” after death, so to speak. The various afterlives of cadavers, should they be donated to science, involved in an accident, or just suffer garden-variety death.

The book is so incredibly respectfully written. Not an easy feat considering she discusses an ordinarily taboo and unpleasant topic. Roach somehow manages to write about adult male cadavers dressed in leotards and used as crash test dummies without causing any distress to the reader.

I loved this book for what it taught me about things I’d never considered, such as the embalming process when bodies are prepared for viewing by loved ones, or how what happened in air fatalities is pieced together in investigations. But mostly I loved it for the moral questions it raised with me. Namely the ethics of dealing with corpses donated to science. And the issue of how we choose to be handled once we have passed on.

The first part, dealing with ethics, is something I had never thought of. Basically everything we know about our live selves was learned through studying dead bodies. Here, science has an inglorious past and several of Roach’s historical stories were stomach-churning. You’ve probably heard of Burke and Hare, but there were so many more commonplace travesties. Men inheriting medical positions from their fathers, despite lacking even the most fundamental training or consideration for human life and conducting experimental public surgery on suffering patients without even the benefit of anaesthesia.

One quote from the book has stuck with me. Robert Berkow, author of a definitive medical textbook said, “It wasn’t until around 1920 that the average patient with the average illness seeing an average physician came away better for the encounter.” Every time I have been to the doctor since, I have said a silent thank you to all the poor souls who have fallen ill before me. Science didn’t get to where it is today without effort, sacrifice, experiment and suffering. We are so lucky we live in an age where we can take advantage of that.

But there are so many things that we still need to research. If you learned that a relative had donated their body to science and you ever thought about what that might entail, you would perhaps like to imagine some gentle, laboratory-style research being carried out on blood and tissue. How would you feel if you learned they were actually being shot at close range to study the damage done by bullets and to develop better protection for soldiers or officers? These are the questions Roach broached with members of the scientific community carrying out these studies. Not every corpse can be used to try to cure cancer, sometimes we just need to learn more about how bodies decompose so we can better investigate murders and deaths.

It’s something I had never considered before, and gave me great respect for people who choose to donate their bodies to science. I also realised that if a loved one of mine does so, the less I know about it the better.

As for final resting places, in most cultures this involves some form of burial. But how do we deal with booming populations and the accompanying space shortages they bring about? Not everyone can be buried on a plot of land within the bounds of a peaceful green garden. Stiff introduces some alternatives to this, and the one that captured my interest was Promessa. A Swedish company, Promessa offers to transform your remains into a kind of ecologically-friendly fertiliser that can be used to nourish a tree or plant.

This book is a fascinating, hilarious and highly-recommended read that is sure to prompt some interesting discussions around your dinner table