Stiff by Mary Roach: A Change Your Life (or Rather, Death) Book

Note: I occasionally accept review copies from the publisher. Posts written from review copies are labeled. All opinions are my own. Posts may contain affiliate links. I may receive compensation for any purchased items.

One Saturday, my husband laughed out loud while listening to something on his headphones.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

” ‘Maggots’ is an ugly word; she’s using ‘haciendas’ instead!”

[amazon_link asins=’0393324826′ template=’RightAlignSingleImage’ store=’rebereid06-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’7a454031-17f3-11e7-a96a-6b1918388bb2′]My husband doesn’t normally laugh out loud while listening to audiobooks. This was new. After a bit more coaxing, I found that he was listening to Stiff by Mary Roach, which I had wanted to read, until he started talking about maggots.

“It’s about cadavers,” he said.

I was disgusted. I couldn’t read that!

Later, I entered the kitchen, where he was listening without headphones. (Yes, in the kitchen.) The narrator now discussed shooting cadavers with bullets.

“That’s disgusting!” I said, reaching for my lunch. “I won’t be giving my body to science!”

“Well, you better believe I will be!” he responded.

This shocked me. I stammered out an objection, and he reiterated his wishes. And yet, despite my disgust, I couldn’t put in words why I would want to see him dead in the casket. (We’ve been married for only two years, and maybe just the thought of him dead was most disturbing.)

He told me I couldn’t say no to medical research, organ donation, or human dissection until I knew what would happened, be it decay, cremation, or the other things.

[amazon_link asins=’1400100976′ template=’RightAlignSingleImage’ store=’rebereid06-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’875202a8-17f3-11e7-8b77-439f2f999c72′]Enter Stiff:The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. Yes, I gave in: I listened to it too. It stops being nauseating fairly quickly; you get used to it. And after listening to this (wonderfully narrated by Shelly Frasier) audiobook, I’ve been converted:

Please, don’t bury me! There are too many other, cooler things that could happen to my body after I die!

Stiff is not a book for the faint of stomach. Some chapters are horrendously gruesome. But it wasn’t all disgusting, and some places were downright funny. And some were both disgusting and funny. In her introduction to Stiff, Mary Roach says:

Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.

I have to agree.

Stiff taught me that cadavers are essential to research. After all, as Mary Roach points out, the things that most need cadavers to help in research are the things that are most likely to kill humans to begin with. While I understand squeamishness (that was me), I would suggest, as my husband did, that you not rule out anything until you know what it’s about.

What are cadavers good for?

Note: Links below lead to Wikipedia articles, which sometimes don’t have sources, but do have links to other interesting websites. Roach’s discussions are much more fascinating and, while I don’t have the physical book or source notes to prove it, I assume very well researched.

  • Dissection: Medical students often dissect cadavers as part of their training. Some cadavers are even digitized so that such studies can be via computer. (Personally, I would want my heart surgeon to have had experience with a physical body!)
  • Impact testing studies: Crash test dummies can determine the level of impact, but, as Roach points out, the information is useless if one doesn’t know what levels a human body can withstand. And such use for cadavers has great payback:

For every cadaver that rode the crash sleds to test three-point seat belts, 61 lives per year have been saved. For every cadaver that took an airbag in the face, 147 people per year survive otherwise fatal head-ons. For every corpse whose head has hammered a windshield, 68 lives per year are saved. (found at 135 minutes, 30 seconds)

  • Organ donation: For people who are brain dead, organs can be harvested and used to heal numerous other persons: heart transplants, liver and kidney transplants, and so forth, and, believe it or not, even head transplants. (Yes, there is a market.)
  • Crime and accident investigation: Body decay is studied as a control to determine when and how crime or accident victims died. I’m glad someone does that for a living because a lot of important things are learned for forensic experts.
  • Military studies: Cadavers are used to test armor for soldiers, to test boots for land mine clearance, and to test the lethality of “non-lethal” bullets. An alternative, for example: in the past (for example, during the Korean War), armor was tested by putting it on 6,000 U.S. soldiers and sending them in to battle. I really hope if my son is drafted in to the army, the armor has first been tested on a cadaver.
  • Plastination: Bodies or body parts can be preserved in a plastic-like state for educational purposes or for research. This state is much more realistic than plastic models would be, because, face it, it is real!
  • And much more!

If you don’t want to donate your body for research, other things can be done to your remains:

  • Decay
  • Embalming (and then decay, as embalming is not permanent)
  • Cremation
  • Compost
  • Medicinal cannibalism

To be honest, I was very disturbed by the review of the actual decay process; after reading Stiff, I certainly would prefer the alternatives. (Hence the lack of description after the items on the second list; I’d rather not dwell on them.) The research and medical alternatives are much more interesting: I could save lives, even after I’ve died!

After Roach’s fascinating historical and modern approaches to all of these options, she discusses her own wishes for her remains and kindly takes the preferences and wishes of her loved ones in to account.

And that is just what she does throughout Stiff: Roach doesn’t tell us what we should do, although there are some ethical discussions and overviews. Rather, she shows us the amazing options, the bizarre treatments, and the disturbed people who have worked with cadavers in the past. Despite the morbid subject, it is funny and approachable. I even listened while eating in the kitchen.

Cadavers, Funny?

Stiff is seriously funny, in a way that I never thought possible when looking at the process of decay and the various other uses for dead human bodies. I am not a very funny writer: this review, long and cerebral as it has become, cannot do this book justice. You have to listen to the book or read it to get the funny side of Stiff. Trust me, it’s worth it. (I thought I had a weak stomach, but really, the humor disperses the disgusting aspects.)

Roach tells things from the voyeuristic journalist perspective. It seemed she kept asking herself, What would the weirdest person in the world wonder about cadavers? Let me find out the answers!

Or maybe she is just one of those weird people. Either way, it works.

(Visit Mary Roach’s website for excerpts from the book; as I listened to the audiobook, I had a very hard time re-finding the great quotes. So I gave up.)

A Note on My Personal Beliefs

I don’t want to turn this post into a spiritual discussion or a discussion on what is appropriate for revering the human body. If you are a spiritual person, please don’t think I’m insensitive or nonspiritual by considering the options Roach discusses. I would like to clarify what I believe when I think about dead bodies. I believe that we are all spirit children of God, housed in physical bodies. Our physical bodies are children of physical parents, and those bodies are temples (see 1 Corinthians 6:19). I believe that when we die, our spirits return to God, and our physical bodies will decay naturally. The spirit is no longer in us; therefore, while the empty body is still a miraculous thing and should be revered, it is no longer the temple of a spirit: it is an empty hull. I also believe in a literal resurrection, where the body and spirit will be reunited. I believe that that resurrection will occur whether the body has been lost at sea, followed the natural process of decay, or been used for medical research.

My Conclusion

After reading about various uses for cadavers, I am convinced that dedicating my body to science or medicine could still revere the miraculous creation of the body, maybe more so than letting it rot and decay in the ground, as donating it may save lives in the process. But my husband or children will be the ones that have to decide what they’ll do with my remains: I’ll no longer be on earth, and they will be the ones that need to live with that fact.

I normally like to end my reviews with a question for you to answer in the comments. I’m not going to with this review. Rather, here are some questions for you to answer to yourself, not as a comment:

  • What will your loved ones do with your dead body? Why?
  • Does your family know your preference?

I hope this long-winded review of Stiff by Mary Roach at least got you thinking. For me, Stiff was a change my life death book.

Reviewed on July 29, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Interesting.

    I want to be cremated. And that’s ‘out there’ enough for my family. My mother-in-law gets annoyed with cremations. I think because there isn’t a body to look at. I’m not sure what the thinking is there.

    I’ve told my husband. I don’t want people saying, “She looks good” at the coffin. I won’t look good! If I did I’d be breathing.

  • I’ve always been one for cremation. I’ve told my family this, though I don’t know how far they’ll go to honor it. My mother seemed ok with it, until I told her I didn’t want any eulogies or a long, drawn out funeral. Instead, I want a lot of good food and live music. I’ve just no interest whatsoever in a sombre funeral for myself.

  • @Chris and J.S. Peyton: I’m with you….I don’t want to look good when I’m dead. Interesting that after reading this book, nothing really seems “out there” anymore…

  • Thank you for your “long-winded review”! I have teetered with the idea of reading this several times. You have encouraged me to put it closer to the top of the TBR list. 🙂

  • We read this book in my freshman English class at Texas A&M. When I saw it on my book list I was scared, but Roach does an excellent job of making the subject tolerable (I don’t know if the audio book had the footnotes like the book did, but those were usually my favorite parts.) I have decided to donate my eyes to the Texas Lions Eye Bank.

  • C.J., that’s awesome that it was a school assignment! I enjoyed it, obviously. I don’t recall footnotes — but sometimes narrations are done rather seamlessly. I suspect I missed them in this case. Maybe I need to revisit it!

    Thanks for visiting!

  • I haven’t read the book yet but thank you for sharing your value system in your critiques. As a bookaholic and Christian, it is great to read your reviews, which I find refreshing when compared to most. Books are to help us to think more deeply and question everything around us. Your reviews help to do just that.

  • On page 290, funeral director Kevin McCabe states, “it’s none of their business what happens to them when they die.” What is he referring to, anddiscuss whether you agree/disagree with him and why?

  • What do you think of the author’s desire to leave herself to science? discuss at least 2 of the ideas she looks into in chapter 12, and then write your personal response to those.

  • I just finished listening to this audio and LOVED IT. Shelly Frasier was spectacular! I laughed in so many sections, but definitely cringed listening to medicinal cannibalism… 🙂 Like you, I made a decision that donating my body to science is the right thing to do. Understanding decaying or cremation just completed sickened me, and I’d rather have a bunch of pre-med students study me, or maybe I’ll be a crash test dummy. Either way, I’m not going in the ground to be eaten by “haciendas” or violently experience cremation. No way, man. That’s more frightening than any of the creative options available!

  • I’m currently reading this in my AP Language class and it is MARVELOUS! Unlike other (horribly boring) non-fiction novels, this one has been my favorite by far. Roach has all the qualities of my favorite kind of writer; she’s witty yet an easy read, and she’s humorous yet respectful. I never thought I could ever love a book about cadavers and their many useful purposes, but Roach has definitely made this grading period an interesting one. She gets her point across while still being able to keep readers in a comfortable state of mind. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone.

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