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Mary Roach: Stiff: The Curious Lives Of Human Cadavers


Stiff: The Curious Lives Of Human Cadavers

Author: Mary Roach
Publisher: Norton

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Television shows like Six Feet Under and C.S.I. have sparked a mini-boom in the depiction, discussion, and consideration of what becomes of dead bodies, but Mary Roach's Stiff practically exhausts the subject, surveying just about every imaginable use to which corpses have been or might be put. Roach is a travel writer who drifted into covering health and science when she grew tired of only touring exterior locations. In her new career as an amateur historian and body explorer, Roach retains her wit and personal touch, which can be off-putting, given Stiff's subject. When she caps off a description of an early embalming method that entailed replacing the blood with alcohol by adding, "I've been to frat parties like that," her flippant, first-person wisecracking is jarring, to say the least. More often, though, Roach's colorful expressions make the sense-assaulting nature of decomposing flesh and organs vividly real, and clarify the author's musings on humans' often-irrational attachment to the physical self. Stiff breaks down the stages of human decay, covers the history and moral standing of organ transplants–which at times sparked a debate over whether the soul lies in the heart, brain, or liver–and considers whether it's ethical or economical to use the dead for compost or food. Roach looks at what it actually means when people donate their bodies to science, whether a given cadaver ends up as a skeleton on a hook in a biology class, or a subject for tests on car safety or military weapons effectiveness, or fresh flesh for surgeons to practice on. She acknowledges that the last example sounds noblest, until she visits a plastic-surgery seminar and wonders whether the deceased imagined that their gift to medicine would culminate in their heads being cut off for facelift drills. The coin that Stiff keeps flipping occasionally lands on the side of the dead being dead, and worthwhile only in what they can provide, and occasionally on the side of the dead being humans worthy of respect, with identifying features that retain traces of personality. It's when the coin lands on its edge and the cadavers become comically abused marionettes that Roach's breezy style and Stiff's mordant purpose really plug in.