Stiff by Mary Roach

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Trade, 304 pages, 2003

Rating: 10/10

Reason for Reading: I kept seeing it mentioned on BookCrazy, so I finally scored myself a copy at a boxing day sale.

Synopsis: When we die, what happens to us…physically? Roach explores the lives of cadavers, varying from medical uses to human crash test dummies to cannibalism to just plain burial or cremation. The book looks at a lot of weird history, including body snatching; current oddities, like the science/art exhibits in Body Worlds; and possible futures in environmentally friendly burials.

Why you should read this book: Somehow you don’t expect a book about the oft-gory details of cadavers to be so…well, friendly. However, Roach tackles a subject that many people would prefer not to dwell on with thoughtfulness and even respectful humour. Certainly there’s stuff that individuals might be offended by, but the fact is that the things discussed in the book have been done in the past or are being done now, and it’s quite interesting to look at death from a physical standpoint instead of just a religious one. There’s a big mix of topics in this book, and Roach moves gracefully between them, always keeping the reader engaged and moving smoothly between feelings of horror, inspiration, awe, and hope. By necessity some of the book is macabre, but to be honest I’ve read more disgusting things in novels about forensic science. There’s still plenty to keep you enthralled, though, because Roach isn’t afraid to pose the sort of weird questions to her experts most of us would be embarrassed to ask. It’s not for everyone, but you couldn’t wish for a better tour guide through the world of death than Roach.

Why you should avoid this book: If you’re squeamish, you might not even make it through the opening paragraph of Stiff (see below). I read a lot of forensic mysteries so I was mostly okay, but I still have my weaknesses – any talk of eyeballs makes me squirm so I’ll admit I might have read a few pages faster than others…

Opening paragraph:

The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I seen a head in a roasting pan. But here are forty of them, one per pan, resting face-up on what looks to be a small pet-food bowl. The heads are for plastic surgeons, two per head, to practice on. I’m observing a facial anatomy and face-lift refresher course, sponsored by a southern university medical center and led by a half-dozen of America’s most sought-after face-lifters.

Fabulous quotes:

By 1828, the demands of London’s anatomy schools were such that ten full-time body snatchers and two hundred or so part-timers were kept busy throughout the dissecting ‘season.’ (Anatomy classes were held only between October and May, to avoid the stench and swiftness of summertime decomposition.) According to a House of Commons testimony from that year, one gang of six or seven resurrectionists, as they were often called, dug up 312 bodies. The pay worked out to about $1,000 a year – some five to ten times the earnings of the average unskilled laborer – with summers off.

In the mid-1960s, a neurosurgeon named Robert White began experimenting with ‘isolated brain preparations’: a living brain taken out of one animal, hooked up to another animal’s circulatory system, and kept alive. Unlike Demikhov’s and Guthrie’s whole head transplants, these brains, lacking faces and sensory organs, would live a life confined to memory and thought.

Also recommended: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; Acquainted with the Night by Christopher Dewdney; Buried Alive by Jan Bondeson.

Also by this author: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science; Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.

Author’s website:

Fun tidbit: Stiff can be seen briefly in an episode of Six Feet Under (season 4, episode 4), which was a hit show about a family-run mortuary.

Would I read more by this author? I might read Spook, but I’d definitely read Bonk when it comes out in a few months.

&#169 Lisa Yanaky 2003-2008

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