Stiff, by Mary Roach, is a nonfiction book about the “Curious lives of human cadavers”. In this book, Roach details the ins and outs of what happens when you donate your body to science, as well as other “uses” for dead human bodies. In dealing with such a seemingly gruesome subject, Roach keeps it quite tame and informative. From anatomy labs to cadaveric medicine, this book is sure to leave no cadaver questions unanswered. The book begins with a foreseen segment on educational uses for cadavers, including a full chapter on the practice of facial surgery on human heads.
Though shocking, it is not gruesome enough to put the book down. Roach is witty yet respectful in describing the decapitation of cadavers, and punny yet informative in speaking of decomposition. Next up, Roach dives into first year anatomy courses which deal with cadavers. Not only do readers learn of the functional uses of the cadavers, but of the laws and emotions surrounding them. Roach does many on site interviews with different researchers, and obtains a candid view of the world of the dead.
Roach asks the questions everyone else is afraid to, and gets shocking results. An ntriguing detail of the book is the fact Roach herself experiences each chapter hands on, and not solely writing of research just anybody could find. Another interesting aspect of Stiff is the countless debate of ethics. Yet another facet of this book is history. Roach integrates numerous cadaver facts in each chapter from the ancient Romans to the Middle ages to just fifty years ago. It is amazing how people’s attitudes and behaviors toward death and the dead can change over time.
There is an entire chapter of the book that deals with crime, and stories how from the beginning of humanity humans have been ody snatching for the sake of research. It was even once a full time career choice! The book really is all encompassing when it comes to bodies. The most repugnant chapter, though not horrendous, is about scientists who study decay. They take the naked cadavers and leave them in the hot sun, then observe the natural deterioration. Roach is not fazed herself, but readers might find this chapter a little too detailed.
They put the cadavers out to study for forensics, so that they can find out exactly when a person was killed. “For the more you know about how dead bodies decay–the biological and chemical hases they go through, how long each phase lasts, how the environment affects these phases–the better equipped you are to figure out when any given body died: in other words, the day and even the approximate time of day it was murdered. ” (Roach 39). Hearing the smells and even tastes of human flesh might also be unpleasant for some. One chapter describes the use of cadavers for medicinal purposes, mostly in ancient times.
One unexpected facet of cadaveric research is the use of the dead as crash test dummies. When the dummies can’t give the correct results, scientists try to get the real deal. After all, dummies don’t have that many bones. “A dummy can tell you how much force a crash is unleashing on various dummy body parts, but without knowing how much of a blow a real body part can take, the information is useless. ” (Roach 59). On a more tragic note, Roach chats with Dennis Shanahan, a man who analyzes crash victims to identify what exactly happened.
Roach gets to see him in action, investigating flight 800, a plane that crashed in the water. Shanahan uses the autopsies of the victims to find out what exactly happened– and in the end he was right. It is amazing how people like him can ork in such devastating circumstances. Roach investigates how these types walk the fine line between removing themselves and insensitivity. Readers soon learn how taxing it can be, and that the main strategy is to not think of the “parts” as human. Another subject Roach touches on is ballistics research.
How do they get around the not suprising fact that shooting dead people is not okay? From using gelatin to not actually shooting the cadavers, they sure do have to be creative. In the chapter “Holy Cadaver”, readers learn that crucifixion was not confined to ancient Rome. In fact, hundreds of people volunteered to be studied. The scientists were trying to verify the Shroud of Turin by studying the blood marks on the shroud and on the cadavers and live people they crucified.
“Little is known about our Dr.cBarbet, except that he became very devoted, possibly a little too devoted, to proving the authenticity of the Shroud. ” (Roach 107). Clearly, some of the scientists in this book take it a little too far. The book also goes into the historical account of “defining death”– locating the soul and the legalities of death. The quirky and even petty laws made over he years concerning death are quite fascinating. Another real page turner is the chapter about decapitation and head transplants. Though it hasn’t yet been done on a human, many dogs and monkeys have successfully gained a head for the sake of research.
In a delightfully eco friendly chapter, Roach informs the readers of alternative burial methods. She focuses on one particular group who wants to make human fertilizer a widespread method. “This is as close”, he said, “as science is going to get to reincarnation”. (Roach 181). Though it may be radical, those who support it think it to be quite beneficial. Roach gave many insights on culture, saying “Off-putting as cadaveric medicine may be, it is–like cultural differences in cuisine–mainly a matter of what you’re accustomed to. ” (Roach 155).
It goes without saying that not everyone is cut out to digest this sort of material. I would recommend this book to someone who is mature, has had science classes before, and has a good grip on death and what it’s all about. Someone who watches a lot of scientific or historical television might also enjoy this. An interesting aspect of this book is its connection of science, history, religion, and politics. It is quite the challenge to incorporate all of these, but Stiff does it seamlessly. Roach just had such a way of making science seem cool.
Iam not typically interested in nonfiction, or any non-required reading for that matter, but I enjoyed this book and found it to be a good beginner science text. Though sometimes a little graphic, it is always tasteful and bearable. In conclusion, I found Stiff, by Mary Roach, to be enjoyable. I think that anyone with a mild interest for science would too, and get a better worldview of death. I didn’t know much about cadaveric research and body onation, so I am glad I now know how beneficial and crucial it is to so many areas of research.
It is strangely comforting to hear how people make a difference from the grave. Though I am positive my body is going straight into the dirt, I still commend those who do donate theirs. There is so much to learn from Stiff, and I hope that many other death ignorant people will read it also. This book answers so many questions, but raises twice as many. “We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget. ” (Roach 57).