Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers - Mary Roach

*Please avoid this review if you are easily disturbed by the idea of corpses and cadavers. As the title suggests, this review will revolve around these subjects. This certainly won't be an exceptionally grotesque or disrespectful review, but to some these subjects may be off-putting.*

This non-fiction book written by Mary Roach literally details "the life" of a human cadavers: the many different things they can be used for, exactly what they under-go and how each process worked historically.  Roach's well-researched book is written in a unique and often humorous tone, which helps to bring a sense of lightness to the heavy subject matter. I was never disturbed or offended while reading the details of this book; rather I was intrigued and fascinated with the odd specifics:
"Before us is a man with a torso greatly distended. It is a circumference I more readily associate with livestock. As for the groin, it is difficult to tell what's going on; insects cover the area, like something he is wearing.  The face is similarly obscured. The larvae look like cooked rice. They live like rice, too, pressed together: a moist, solid entity. If you lower your head to within a foot or two of an infested corpse (and this I truly don't recommend), you can hear them feeding. Arpad pinpoints the sound: "Rice Krispies." Ron frowns. Ron used to like Rice Krispies."
The book is broken into 12 chapters, each chapter exploring a different theme. Two of my favorites were "How to Know If You're Dead: Beating-heart cadavers, live burial, and the scientific search for the soul" and "Beyond The Black Box: When the bodies of the passengers must tell the story of a crash". The footnotes are well worth reading, detailing interesting facts. For instance, every so often an anatamy student will recognize a lab cadaver. A professor at the University of California said he's "had it happen twice in a quarter of a century". Of course these are slim odds, but could you imagine?

A few (of the many) other interesting things I learned while reading this book:
  • When embalming fluid is pumped into a cadaver's viens, the body's erectile tissues expands, leaving male cadavers "better endowed in death than they were in life"
  • Up until 1965 necrophilia was not a crime in any US state
  • Before it was possible to donate your body to science, anatomists would buy cadavers for a sizable sum of money, thus prompting some to create their own corpses by killing people they believed would die soon anyway
  • Corpses lose about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit per hour until they reach room temperature
  • The brain is an "early-departure" organ, liquefying very quickly after death. It pours out the ears and bubbles out the mouth.
If you are intrigued by this subject matter (as I am) I highly recommend this book. Not only is it very interesting, it is also one of the funniest books I have read in awhile. (Not because of the subject matter, but because of the way Roach approaches it.) It is especially fun to read around this time of year.   

Publisher: Norton, 2003


  1. I can't decide if I want to read this or not. The quotes and facts you include are great but the topic isn't my favorite. The humor in it does make me want to at least pick it up next time I'm in a bookstore. Thanks!

  2. It sounds like something I would find quite interesting actually, but Im not sure what that says about me LOL

  3. This post brought me back to the years I had to dissect them. It sounds like a good read, to give me a different perspective!! Thanks!!

  4. Red, If you're not interested in the topic I wouldn't recommend it. While parts are very funny, it is first and foremost about dead people.

    Jessica, I have always been interested in topics like these. I don't think it's a bad thing at all!

    BookQuoter, Impressive! I would love the opportunity to do the same, although I don't think I'll ever have one. But what an interesting experience for you!

  5. Great review, my husband is a medical student so he is very grateful for cadavers!

  6. I loved Stiff and want to read this, but I am worried that I might find it a bit much. I was doing OK with your quotes until the brain through the ears bit!

    i'm sure I'll get to it one day, but I think I'll read her others first!

  7. Oh I loved this book and totally didn't think I would! Glad you found it interesting too!

  8. I loved this book and I want to read more Roach. Have you read others by her?

  9. Laura, I haven't read anything else by Roach, but I've read mixed reviews. Some like her other work (Spook, Boink) but others say Stiff was her best.

  10. This book was darkly hilarious: I wound up reading everything in my library by Roach because of it.

    Strangely, two of those also involved dead bodies. It wasn't "Boink", though!

  11. smellincoffee, I really loved the way Roach approached the subject. She's really fantastic and I hope to read more by her.