Mary Roach

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach is at times informative, educational, interesting, humorous, and, at times, positively macabre.

Roach explores how the study of human cadavers has advanced the field of medical science and forensics, and how it has saved lives through improvements in car safety and in the protection of military personnel in combat zones. Each chapter contains a brief explanation of experiments performed by pioneers in the study of cadavers, explaining their contributions—or lack thereof. Roach also interviews individuals currently working with cadavers, including physicians who transplant organs, military personnel, embalmers, forensics experts whose task is to determine the time and nature of death, and injury analysts. She attends autopsies, transplant surgeries, and laboratories where experiments are performed. And through it all, she manages to pepper her discussion with a tongue-in-cheek humor without being disrespectful toward the subject of her inquiry.

Roach’s study was interesting and informative in many ways. Because scientists now know the rate and stages of decomposition of human remains, they can pinpoint the time and nature of death with accuracy. And through their study of human remains, injury analysts can determine the cause of a fatal plane crash. The differences between organ donation and donating your body to science are clarified, as are the procedures involved in embalming; cremation; the composting of human remains; and traditional burial.

Much has been learned through the study of cadavers. Obviously, it is preferable to experiment on cadavers rather than live humans in the interest of advancing knowledge. But one wonders whether it was necessary to describe experiments in such graphic, gruesome detail. Some of the experiments performed on animals were cruel and resulted in grotesque aberrations. And some experiments performed on human body parts made one recoil in horror. A case in point: the French physician who feverishly collected guillotined heads during the French revolution to determine if and for how long a head can survive after it has been severed from the human body. The chapter “Eat Me” was particularly grisly. Roach gives a historical overview of various bits and pieces of cadavers and human and animal bodily excretions ingested for medicinal purposes.

Although interesting and educational in many ways, this is not a book for everyone. Recommended but with reservations.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review