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Book Review: Stiff – The Curious Life of Human Cadavers – Author Mary Roach

by Mary Roach
Published by W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: 2003
Format: Black /White – 303 pages
Price: $23.95

What happens to us when we die? Not our souls persay, but our bodies?
Do we lay there in a glorious light like a scene out of a Shakespearean play, do we rot and decay like the bodies that we see on the countless horror flicks we have all seen, or do we turn in to mummies like something out of an episode of HBO’s AUTOPSY? Well, it all depends on how you die. What are the elements that surrounded your corpse, how long was it before your body was found, how exactly did you die in the first place? But then take it a step further. After you have become a corpse, what next? With so many options we have, and believe it or not we do have options, what becomes of your former ‘living pod’? Mary Roach takes us on a journey through the rarely explored world of dead bodies and what happens to ‘you’ when your no longer inhabiting ‘yours’.

STIFF is like a guide to the universe of corpses. Mary Roach spent time divulging into a world of dead bodies and explores different forms of burial, decay, uses, and even some myths. In this compelling and wildly entertaining compilation of studies, Mary went to different colleges, institutes, and even a funeral home to get a better understanding of this topic. The book starts out with the chapter entitled ‘A Head Is A Terrible Thing To Waste – practicing surgery on the dead’. She opens in a seminar for plastic surgeons where human heads had been sawed off and put into a serving bowls, awaiting face lifts. She notes on the lavender tablecloths that are used to ensure a ‘calming atmosphere’ and the fact that these heads have no neck and were sawed right under the chin. She speaks with a couple of the paying surgeons, who paid $500 a head… literally on two accounts, and got some insight as to their thoughts on making ‘Ted the Head’ into their subject while he just happens to be lacking a body.

The insight offered by one surgeon sin particular makes you think about what you may want have done with your body, post mortem that is. As you go through the rest of the chapters, and trust me this is not a book put down easily be it your morbid curiosity or her extremely witty way of explaining even her morbid curiosity, you find a lot of facts that otherwise you may have never fathomed imagining.
Take a OBGYN course for example.

Hey, I’m a girl and this was amazing to me. Did you know they have professional vag volunteers? These are LIVE WOMEN who get paid to let some med students look all in their ‘stuff’ and get paid for it! Don’t get me wrong, I’m up for a hot young guy examining my goods anytime, but at least I, A- don’t get paid for it (my goodies are priceless by the way), and B- I get to pick the ‘diddler’! But that’s besides the point of this book. In a chapter talking about the University Of Tennessee, they actually have a grassy field where they put cadavers in various situations to study the effects and decomposition. This is a used for advances in forensic investigations but proves for a very ‘smelly situation’.

Mary traveled out to see the field and get a better understanding of what happens when exposed to those elements. In a quote that I found to be one of my favorite gnarly facts in this book, the were discussing what happens to certain organs and how the body breaks down. They detail the brain and say that the bacteria from our mouths eat through the pallet and because our brains are easy for the bacteria to eat, “The brain liquefies very quickly. It just pours out of the ears and bubbles out of the mouth.” She proceeds to explore the embalming process and what could possibly be done to slow down or stop decomposition. In this chapter is where I found the cool little fact that the Funeral Rule stopped mortuaries from claiming their coffins would keep a body from decomposing for eternity the very year I was born.

See, you learn something everyday!The rest of the chapters cover everything from using bodies for crash test dummies, to the studies done to prove and/or disprove the burial shroud and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, to trials of human head transplants, to medicinal cannibalism, plus much more.

With all this said, do not think that this will be one of your ‘run-of-the-mill’ fact books with a lot of dry knowledge and the ‘oh-so-serious’ air around it.Mary Roach delivers this book in a very respectful but all the way humorous manner. She reminds me a lot of things I would say in her position. For instance, during the plastic surgery seminar, she wondered who was the person lopping off these heads and not giving them a neck. When she finally found who it was, the same lady started to give her a few problems about being there as she was the supervisor of sorts. Now, what we would be thinking in a situation like that would probably never be uttered to anyone except for close pals but Mary admits all she could think was “YOU CUT OFF HEADS! YOU CUT OFF HEADS! YOU CUT OF HEADS!”

This has quickly become a favorite book of mine! It’s been a long time since I have laughed so much but also learned so much at one time.This book has truly opened my eyes to what decisions I need to make for my own cadaver (as in me after I’m dead), and trust me, I owe it all to Mary Roach!

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