Book Review: Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers


Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers (2003) by Mary Roach is a quirky book that takes on a quirky topic: what exactly happens to those bodies donated to science. In a series of chapters of investigative journalism laced with sometimes funny, sometimes annoying wisecracks Roach finds out exactly what happens to those cadaver.

A main purpose of course is for practicing surgery whether medical students in training or experienced surgeons learning a new procedure. Roach explores how doctors distance themselves from the humanity of their expired study object as well as how they often use parts rather than the whole of the cadaver. In a historic chapter Roach recounts the uneasy history of body snatching for human dissection study.

Even grosser is the study of human decay for criminal investigations. A pathologist actually allows cadavers to decay under natural but controlled conditions to learn what decay can tell investigators solving crimes. Dead bodies also tell a lot about the limits of the human body as they are used as crash test dummies for motor vehicle safety. Sometimes the human parts are attached to prosthetic parts to help isolate certain parts of the body (as well as prop them up in a car seat). On a similar vein, the examination of bodies for blast damage, burns and other damage can tell an investigator a lot about what causes aircraft disasters.

Bodies are used for weapons testing and crucifixion experiments, and then the weird stuff starts. Some bodies are brain dead — legally dead — but their hearts are beating and the organs are still alive. Medical professionals have to defy logic and harvest organs from an apparently living body. Weirder still are experiments leading to human head transplantation and medicinal cannibalism, a topic lest said the better. Should you want to let your body decay and become compost you’ll find it harder than you imagine. But green mortuaries are working on improving that for you.

Needless to say, very rarely to those donating their bodies understand what will happen to their remains and their surviving families are rarely informed (nor interested in finding out). All in all an illuminating book and one that despite all the flinching it causes makes me want to donate my body to science. I’m not going to need it anyway.