Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (Review)

Book cover for "Stiff" by Mary Roach.Title: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Author: Mary Roach

Narrator: Shelly Frasier

Publication Year: 2003

Pages: 304 (audio length: 7 hours 59 minutes)

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Audiobook version purchased from

From the cover:

An oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem.

For two thousand years, cadavers (some willingly, some unwittingly) have been involved in science’s boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. They’ve tested France’s first guillotines, ridden the NASA Space Shuttle, been crucified in a Parisian laboratory to test the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, and helped solve the mystery of TWA Flight 800. For every new surgical procedure, from heart transplants to gender reassignment surgery, cadavers have been there alongside surgeons, making history in their quiet way.

In this fascinating, ennobling account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries from the anatomy labs and human-sourced pharmacies of medieval and nineteenth-century Europe to a human decay research facility in Tennessee, to a plastic surgery practice lab, to a Scandinavian funeral directors’ conference on human composting. In her droll, inimitable voice, Roach tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.

This is the first book of Roach’s that I’ve read, and I’ll definitely be going back for more.

Stiff explores the history of cadavers – dead bodies used for science – and ethical implications throughout the ages of their use. You might think that this would be a dry subject, but you would be wrong. Indeed, Roach manages to approach the topic with just enough candor and humour to make it interesting, but not so much as to show disrespect.

Personally, I’m a bit squeamish about death and bodies; I opted out of dissecting fetal pigs and frogs in high school, for example, because I just couldn’t fathom the idea of touching them. (Just thinking about it, even now, makes me twitch.) So I wasn’t really sure how I was going to handle Stiff, but at the same time, I found myself fascinated by the premise. Since the time that I was a teenage, I’ve had the “organ donation” box checked on my driver’s license and health card, and I’ve always wondered what “bodies donated to science” got up to. It couldn’t possibly be only to be used for medical students to use for dissection … there had to be something more. And in this book, Roach definitely gets into the nitty-gritty of what these other uses are.

I don’t want to say too much else, because it’ll give away the content, but I will say that the author does a great job of describing procedures without going too far into the anatomical, and that her voice really shines through, particularly when she’s giving examples of conversations and experiences with real, “live” cadavers that she had while researching the book. Frasier, the narrator of the audiobook, did a great job of emphasizing Roach’s no-holds-barred approach to the topic; it definitely isn’t the kind of thing that gets read in a deadpan, serious tone.

If you’re interested in finding out what happens to our bodies after we die (and what would’ve happened to them if we lived in another time), find yourself a copy of Stiff. You won’t be disappointed.


7 thoughts on “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (Review)”

  1. I love Roach…she makes sciencey stuff entertaining. I’ll confess to skipping the chapter on airplanes, though…didn’t want to risk scaring myself out of flying!

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