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Book Review: Stiff – The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

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Normally, a person dies at the conclusion of the book.

End of life usually equals end of story.

But, for author Mary Roach (Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex), death is just the beginning.

Her book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, released in 2003, takes kicking the bucket to a whole new level. In it, she reveals that our assumptions, that most corpses’ lives stop six feet under, are dead wrong.

It is a book comparable to no other I’ve read. Of course, I could compare it to those long-winded, medical jargon-crammed essays in doctor’s journals which detail the various uses of cadavers in their diverse states. But those essays are as pale as death when placed beside Roach’s colorful words and vibrant humor.

Hailed as “Best Book of 2003” by Entertainment Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Times, and by NPR’s “Science Friday,” this book, it seems, is being eaten up by everyone, even when its main characters seem destined to be food for worms.

Each chapter in Stiff is a story in itself. Read it in any order you like, the effect is the same – laugh-out-loud science. Who knew that dead people could be so funny – unless we’re talking about the stiff-legged, flesh eating living dead?

But there is nothing alive about these cadavers. Nothing, except how the living use them.
Roach, in her “lively” discussion of the dead, calls to attention the many uses of current and past daisy pushers. When her first chapter openly conversed about the “talking heads” used by medical students to practice surgery on, I wondered whether I should be horrified or amused. Luckily, the latter won.

Then, in the following chapter, when she discussed the history of cadavers, I again asked myself whether I should scream or laugh.

I screamed with laughter.

This theme continued as I read. In the midst of each chapter I questioned my reasons for why, suddenly, I had developed this morbid sense of humor. I couldn’t explain it. People would ask me, after they observed me chuckling to myself on a university bench, what I found so funny. How could I explain to them the delicate nature of “extreme water impact,” its effects on the human body, or that some of the first test subjects to discern its effects were guinea pigs who were catapulted off the cliffs of Dover? Answer: I couldn’t, so I just suggested that they read the book themselves.

Yes, there were times while reading Stiff that I found myself disgusted. Yes, there were moments when perusing pages that I was saddened by the circumstances, frightened by the results, and intrigued by the turn of events. And yes, there were seconds I felt these things simultaneously and enjoyed them immensely.

Never has science been so much fun… and gross. Human bodies really are absolutely disgusting. But Roach conveys the corporeal in ways that even when it comes to this darkly perceived as well as taboo topic, the grim reaper couldn’t cast a shadow over the author's sunny outlook.

For me at least, thanks to Roach, death has certainly been warmed over.

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