Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

by Mary Roach

Roach has the necessary mix of curiosity and humor to deal with the subject of science + dead bodies.

She finds her way into labs, mortuary industry meetings, fields of decomposing bodies, military training rooms, etc. and asks lots of questions about how bodies decay as well as how the humans who deal directly on a daily basis with decaying human bodies handle it.

She’s one of my favorite science writers (along with Sam Kean and Val McDermid) not only because she imparts a wealth of science information, but she does so in the context of witty and insightful descriptions of the people she meets along the way so the reader can’t help but extrapolate realizations about societal mores and assumptions.

Roach visits forensic scientists studying the rate of decomposition, a practice lab for plastic surgeons who want to brush up their skills, the dissection lab for doctors-in-training, and the presentation of a Swedish entrepeneur who wishes to start a company that freeze-dries bodies and plants them with bushes/trees instead of traditional burial.

The most interesting parts for me, truly, were the observations Roach makes about how the handlers all deal with dead bodies. The most memorable character is the very strict, very serious lab assistant for the plastic surgeons– the woman who cuts off the heads– and Roach’s portrayal of how disapproving she was of Roach being in the lab and of Roach’s, shall we say, less than serious demeanor.

What also impressed me was understanding how much time the medical students spend with their cadavers (at the time the book was written) and the dignified ceremonies they create when the anatomy class is over.

Part of me wishes I had read this book when I read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, as both books force you to confront the very real, physical and emotional impacts to you and your loved ones.