Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

February 14, 2012

Summary (from the publisher): Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers—some willingly, some unwittingly—have been involved in science’s boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. They’ve tested France’s first guillotines, ridden the NASA Space Shuttle, been crucified in a Parisian laboratory to test the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, and helped solve the mystery of TWA Flight 800. For every new surgical procedure, from heart transplants to gender reassignment surgery, cadavers have been there alongside surgeons, making history in their quiet way.

In this fascinating, ennobling account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries—from the anatomy labs and human-sourced pharmacies of medieval and nineteenth-century Europe to a human decay research facility in Tennessee, to a plastic surgery practice lab, to a Scandinavian funeral directors’ conference on human composting. In her droll, inimitable voice, Roach tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.


  • A lot of the information in the book was interesting. I think Roach did a fairly good job of keeping things moving along. I don’t really recall any parts that bogged me down and made progress slow going, so that’s a plus. For example, she didn’t spend too much time telling readers about how the hospitals bought medication carts at or how often the FBI field lab has to “replenish” their supply of cadavers. Almost everything (with a couple of glaring exceptions listed below) was relevant to the topic.
  • I liked the stories about how cadavers are used at medical schools. I think it’s great that the students are so respectful of the cadavers and get attached enough that they have solemn memorial services at the end of their Anatomy courses.
  • It’s kind of sad that so few people think of leaving their bodies to science for research. (I admit that I have never done so either.) Even in this day and age of high-tech computer modeling, it seems that actual cadavers are still critically needed for a lot of different applications, so the option of donating your body to science should be talked about a bit more.
  • In these kinds of books, there is a fine line between giving sufficient details and delving into, well, nastiness. Roach navigated that line well, IMO.


  • I didn’t like Roach’s NUMEROUS attempts at humor. After so many other reviewers called this “hilarious” and so forth, I was expecting to get quite a few laughs out of it. But I found Roach’s jokes and puns to be sophomoric at best and tiresome at worst. I would have no objection to several well-placed one-liners throughout the book, but she just tried way too hard.
  • I thought the chapters about animal experimentation (especially the head transplants on dogs and monkeys) to be rather disturbing — and out of place. This was, after all, supposed to be a book on what happens to human cadavers, not one about scientific experimentation on live animals gone awry.


I guess I don’t really have that much to say about Stiff by Mary Roach. The book was interesting for the most part, but due to the two issues I had with it, I’m only going to give it 3 stars out of 5.

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