STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers


Book Reviewed: STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Author: Mary Roach

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York

Copyright Date: 2003

ISBN: 978-0-393-32482-2 pbk.

Type: Softcover

Reviewed by: Yackman

Yackman’s Rating: 7 out of 10

My Review: Okay, so why would I read a book like this?  The topic does make one a little queasy. But the cover read “New York Times Best Seller” and there were three full pages of endorsements, plus the back cover, saying how funny and unusual the book was.  There were so many endorsements, that I wondered if a selling job was being done.  But while I found the dark humor forced at times, the book requires some dark humor just to cope with the content.  And it does force you to think about your own “final arrangements”;  what happens to us after we die, pass on, cross over, kick the bucket, take the dirt nap, expire, go to heaven, go to hell - you fill in the blank.  Or more precisely, what happens to our bodies after we die.  Surprisingly, it’s more complicated than you would suspect.   

Most people will go the traditional embalming and burial route, while a significant minority will opt for cremation.  Or, barring no last wishes on the part of the deceased (oops, I need to add deceased to my list above), relatives will decide what is to be done.  The descriptions of what happens to embalmed and buried bodies, sealed in airtight vaults is only slightly more unpleasant than that of cremation.  

A large part of the book focuses on what happens to bodies left for research.  I learned that the person donating his or her body for research has essentially no control over how it will be used.  Most people who donate their body for research have a vision of contributing to medical science in some way, either through the training of doctors or by becoming lab specimens that will aid in the understanding of disease.  Some are used for these purposes.  But others are consigned to the “body farm” at the university of Tennessee, where through their decay in the open, they aid forensic scientists in solving time of death issues (see the chapter “Life After Death”).  A few go to the military to test body armor and the stopping power of new weaponry (see the chapter “The Cadaver Who Joined The Army”).  Some become human crash test dummies, used to calibrate injury and death stresses on mechanical crash test dummies (see the chapter “Dead Man Driving”).  Then there are a whole raft of chapters on cannibalism, brain death, reanimation, crucifixion experiments and how remains are used to reconstruct airplane crashes.  

Roach’s first chapter, “A Head Is A Terrible Thing to Waste”, really sets the tone for the whole book.  Roach is invited (or finagles an invitation to) a seminar for plastic surgeons.  The seminar will teach a specific facelift technique.  Roach is ushered into a room with forty-one tables.  Each table has a disposable aluminum turkey roasting pan on it.  Each pan is covered with a cloth.  Under each cloth is a human head for the seminar surgeon to practice on.  

There is a lot of dark humor in this chapter as Roach tries to maintain her equilibrium.  In the end, she manages to understand that this is a good use of a cadaver.  It allows the surgeon to practice so that he or she does not make mistakes on a living person.  But along the way, she can’t help but speculate about whose job it is to remove all the heads from the bodies for an activity like this one.  And of course, she searches out and meets “Yvonne…the cadaver beheader”.  Roach says, “My end of the conversation takes place entirely in my head and consists of a repeated line. You cut off heads. You cut off heads. You cut off heads.”  I’m sure I would have been thinking the same thing.  How would anyone maintain their objectivity?  How do you not wonder about the person that lived in that body whose head you are removing?  Could you imagine dinner conversation with “Yvonne…the cadaver beheader”?

Reading STIFF got me thinking about my own “final wishes”.  Maybe it’s my age, or that there have been so many deaths in my family over the past few years – I am now the oldest living person in my immediate family.  When I’ve thought about the disposal of my body I have been adamant that I do not want burial – I’m too claustrophobic.  Even though I know intellectually that it won’t matter, I get into such a sweat thinking about being locked up in a small box deep in the ground that I just reject the whole idea.  I’m not really into donating for medical research either, though I’ not sure why.  It may have to do with the needs of the living.  That basically leaves cremation, which is probably still my choice.  I always thought it would be nice to fertilize a garden somewhere.  However, STIFF tells me that cremains have no real nutritive value.  Maybe Lisa would like to keep me in a jar on a shelf, or under the bed where I can keep an eye on her.  

Then there is chapter 11 – "Out of the Fire and Into the Compost Bin”.  A Swedish woman, Susanne Wiigh-Masak, is promoting a process where-by remains are freeze dried, bombarded by sound waves and reduced to compost.  The idea is that such remains would be used to fertilize a memorial garden where the names of the dead would be posted and relatives could come and sit for comfort, should they want to do so (some of this is my elaboration on Wiigh-Masak’s ideas).  I like the idea.  It seems so much more positive than being locked in a box and stuck in the ground, or going up a chimney as sooty smoke.  I don’t know if the idea will ever take off here before I need the service, but I’m ready so sign up.

All-in-all, this is a pretty good book.  It is certainly thought provoking.  It’s a little nauseating and uncomfortable in spots, but funny throughout.  It does force the reader to think about a topic that is more easily avoided than dealt with, which can be a good thing.  


 © Don Yackel 2020