Review: ‘Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers’ Mary Roach

What happens to your body after you have died? Fertilizer? Crash test Dummy? Human dumpling? Ballistics practise?

Life after death is not as simple as it looks. Mary Roach’s Stiff lifts the lid off what happens to our bodies once we have died. Bold, original and with a delightful eye for detail, Roach tells us everything we wanted to know about this new frontier in medical science.

Interweaving present-day explorations with a history of past attempts to study what it means to be human Stiff is a deliciously dark investigations for readers of popular science as well as fans of the macabre.

Despite death being something that happens to every single human being, we (especially in the western world) shy away from talking about it. We don’t want to imagine a world that doesn’t have us in it, a world in which we have no say and play no part. We don’t want to imagine our earthly vessels, from the arms that hold our loved ones to the lips that kiss our partners, lying on a mortuary table, motionless and cold and devoid of all the things that make us us, be it the slightly lopsided smile that blooms on our face when someone cracks a good joke or the frown that creases our forehead when we’re concentrating.

We don’t want to imagine these things, but, inevitably, death comes to us all. We might not have a say in the next election or on our book club’s next read when we die, but we do have a say on what happens to our bodies and this is why we shouldn’t shun conversations about death. We make decisions about our living bodies on a daily basis. We make decisions about the clothes we dress it in, the tattoos and piercings we adorn it with and the jewellery we drape it in. We make decisions about what we nourish it with and what we treat it with when it’s not running as efficiently as it should be. This decision-making should extend beyond our final breath, though.

In Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach talks not only about what crazed scientists have done to cadavers in centuries past, but the decisions people have made regarding their own cadavers in more recent years.

People often assume that we have two choices when we die: cremation or burial. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. If we want our bodies to be buried or cremated, that’s our decision to make and no decision regarding what happens to our bodies is wrong. However, there are far more options than a lot of people perhaps realise. We can donate our organs to those desperately in need of them or even donate our entire bodies to science. We might not have a use for our bodies when we leave the realm of the living, but scientists sure as hell do. We might assume that our contributions to society end once that final breath escapes our lungs, but giving our bodies to science can ensure that we continue to contribute to the world long after we die. It’s cadavers that have helped surgeons improve their life-saving techniques, cadavers that have helped train today’s doctors and cadavers that have made cars a safer form of transport. These are but three of the many ways in which people’s donated bodies have helped those still living live even longer than they might have done in decades past.

I promise this isn’t a sponsored post about the wonders of donating your body to science. It’s simply me expressing my amazement at the amount of choices we have when it comes to deciding what happens to our bodies when we die. I found Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers to be an eye-opening and informative book. Not only that, though, I found it to be warm, comforting and often amusing, three words I don’t normally associate with discussions about death. Death is a scary concept for a lot of people. Hell, even discussions about it make people uneasy. Mary Roach doesn’t sugar coat the physical realities of death. When recounting a trip to a facility where research regarding human decomposition is carried out, she doesn’t shy away from describing the gross changes that occur in a person’s body when it’s breaking down. Sure, it’s not nice thinking about such changes happening to our own bodies, but Roach’s wit and dry humour makes it seem just that bit less scary.

If you’re a fan of Caitlin Doughty’s Ask A Mortician series on YouTube or are just interested in death in general, then this is the book for you.

Want to read Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers? Head on over to Hive, Bookshop or World of Books to order your copy, or order it through your local bookstore.

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9 thoughts on “Review: ‘Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers’ Mary Roach

    1. Haha yeah, it’s perhaps not the best bedtime book 😂 Have you ever read any of Caitlin Doughty’s work? She’s another author I’d highly recommend! She’s a mortician who’s working to change people’s attitudes towards death and dying and her books are absolutely fascinating.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. She’s written three books – Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, From Here To Eternity and Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? From Here To Eternity was a particular favourite of mine. It’s about death customs from around the world. She also has a YouTube channel called Ask A Mortician. It’s very bingeable and her videos cover a wide range of topics, from famous corpses to funeral practises from years gone by.

        Liked by 1 person

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