Latest book review: Stiff by Mary Roach

Just in time for your Halloween shopping!

Category: nonfiction; science journalism; humor


Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is a nonfiction book about the amazing adventures of dead people. No, not brain-eating zombies, but ordinary cadavers, like you and me (someday). This unusual journalistic endeavor takes a light-hearted though unavoidably gory trip through the myriad ways a corpse can make the transition from flesh into dust. Chapters cover topics such as: practicing surgery on the dead; body snatching; human decay; human crash test dummies; organ transplantation; human head transplants and the location of the soul; medicinal cannibalism; and human compost. Stiff is gallows humor at its finest, with fascinating anecdotes and plenty of attitude.


Stiff is irreverent and funny about a subject normally fraught with reverence and rarely as funny as it could be. That subject is death, or more specifically, dead bodies. If you attribute mystical/spiritual properties to cadavers, then this book is definitely NOT for you. (Which is quite different from believing in a soul and afterlife; that’s fine, but before reading Stiff you’d better be convinced the soul leaves the body at the time of death.) Also, avoid this book if you’re squeamish; forensic experiments on natural rates of decay are important but very stinky. But if you like reading thrillers–particularly serial killer or medical examiner stories–you can handle some anatomic detail.

Note that the author is irreverent, but in my opinion, not disrespectful. She clearly understands the emotional difference between an anonymous cadaver and your beloved relative’s remains, but she tells the truth: one way or another, everybody’s molecules re-enter the planetary pool.

I’ll quote the first paragraph of the introduction to give you a sense of Mary Roach’s style:

The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying down on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.

I loved this book. Occasionally the humor feels a bit forced, but I definitely laughed out loud a few times. And the stories deserve to be told. In this age of funeral homes and hospital death, who among us has any sense of what happens to a dead body, either by natural decay or by the ministrations of a mortician? And who knew how many noble uses there are for cadavers donated to science?

Okay, some of you many not want to know. Then go read your Malcolm Gladwell and be at peace.

For the rest of us, read this book. Just don’t expect to discuss it over dinner.

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