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STIFF by Mary Roach Kirkus Star


The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

by Mary Roach

Pub Date: April 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-393-05093-9
Publisher: Norton

Fascinating, unexpectedly fresh and funny look at the multiplicity of ways in which cadavers benefit the living.

Author of the “My Planet” column in Reader’s Digest and a regular contributor to’s “Health and Body” section, Roach displays here a knack for persuading morticians, scientists, engineers, and others whose work involves corpses to let her watch them at their labors. From the opening chapter, in which 40 severed human heads are prepped for a plastic-surgery seminar, to the final one, in which whole bodies are plastinated with liquid polymers for a museum exhibit, she proves herself a keen observer and unflagging questioner. Roach watches an embalming at a college for morticians and visits a university study of human decomposition. She shows the value of cadavers in car-crash testing, in weapons research by the US Army, in investigations into airline disasters, in studies of the crucifixion and the guillotine. Not only do dead bodies provide organ transplants for fellow humans but they may, Roach reports, soon be transformed into compost—at least in ecologically aware Sweden. As for other exotic uses, a chapter subtitled “Medical Cannibalism and the Case of the Human Dumplings” tells it all. While Roach provides a vivid picture of the macabre activities she witnesses, it’s her offbeat musings, admissions, and reactions that give such life to her tales of the dead. She also provides history, mostly focusing on body-snatchers and the anatomists who used their services. Roach delights in imparting odd information, such as the fact that 18th-century students at certain Scottish medical schools could pay their tuition in corpses rather than cash, and when the curious facts unearthed by her research don’t fit neatly into her narrative, she slips them into droll footnotes.

Informative, yes; entertaining, absolutely. (11 illustrations)