Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (Book)

In the world of horror there are few things as disturbing as one’s own mortality. When it comes right down to it, most horror films and books concentrate on someone or another actively avoiding the reaper’s scythe and the situations that send that person hurtling down a path toward his own demise. But one thing that is hardly ever mentioned besides a grisly aftershot or a black body bag is what happens to the body once the killing is done. Stepping back into the real world, most folks don’t even consider the body after death, nor do they know the important roles the dead have played in society. Author Mary Roach takes the reader on an often humorous, always macabre tour of history and the unsung heroes that made their marks post mortem.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers begins with Roach’s first cadaver, her grandmother. From there, the reader is taken through the world of anatomists accused of witchcraft, body snatchers who created their own supply, and charlatans who claimed to be able to cure anything using eviscerata as medicine. Roach’s approach shows the deepest respect for her subject without sacrificing her sense of humor.

Stiff contains historical accounts of heads and their uses in fields as varied as plastic surgery and the military. It provides detailed accounts of what happens to a dead body during embalming, rot, and even cremation. But more interesting are the varied career choices of both the modern cadavers and those of yesteryear. Among the jobs held were ballistics testers, medical road maps, and crash-test dummies. There’s even a “farm” in Tennessee in which the corpses lay about all day, waiting for students to come and observe their rate of decay.

Also included are some interesting, if darkly humorous, tidbits that are good to make any party guest stare as if they’d seen a serial killer — or at least a member of the Addams Family. For example, some of the more popular elixirs sold as cure-alls included Human Mummy Confection, Poor Sinner’s Fat, and the ever-popular Fecal Phosphorous. Also revealed is the fact that it is, in fact, possible to eat until the stomach bursts. The average body apparently tops out at about a gallon, though there have been some cases of those with larger appetites. And if there was ever any doubt as to the existence of the human soul, a 1907 physician proved that it was real and weighed about the same as a big toe.

Stiff is not for the faint of heart. The descriptions are graphic and the subject matter brutal, but it does make for a well-written and fascinating read. Roach masterfully informs, while entertaining, the reader, making this book nearly impossible to put down. It does certainly give the reader a few things to think about. In all, highly recommendable.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
By Mary Roach
Norton, 2003
292 Pages

4 1/2 out of 5

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