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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers [Hardcover]

Mary Roach
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (919 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 17, 2003 9780393050936 978-0393050936 1

"One of the funniest and most unusual books of the year....Gross, educational, and unexpectedly sidesplitting."—Entertainment Weekly

Stiff is 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.

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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers + Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal + Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"Uproariously funny" doesn't seem a likely description for a book on cadavers. However, Roach, a Salon and Reader's Digest columnist, has done the nearly impossible and written a book as informative and respectful as it is irreverent and witty. From her opening lines ("The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back"), it is clear that she's taking a unique approach to issues surrounding death. Roach delves into the many productive uses to which cadavers have been put, from medical experimentation to applications in transportation safety research (in a chapter archly called "Dead Man Driving") to work by forensic scientists quantifying rates of decay under a wide array of bizarre circumstances. There are also chapters on cannibalism, including an aside on dumplings allegedly filled with human remains from a Chinese crematorium, methods of disposal (burial, cremation, composting) and "beating-heart" cadavers used in organ transplants. Roach has a fabulous eye and a wonderful voice as she describes such macabre situations as a plastic surgery seminar with doctors practicing face-lifts on decapitated human heads and her trip to China in search of the cannibalistic dumpling makers. Even Roach's digressions and footnotes are captivating, helping to make the book impossible to put down.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School-Those curious or brave enough to find out what really happens to a body that is donated to the scientific community can do so with this book. Dissection in medical anatomy classes is about the least bizarre of the purposes that science has devised. Mostly dealing with such contemporary uses such as stand-ins for crash-test dummies, Roach also pulls together considerable historical and background information. Bodies are divided into types, including "beating-heart" cadavers for organ transplants, and individual parts-leg and foot segments, for example, are used to test footwear for the effects of exploding land mines. Just as the nonemotional, fact-by-fact descriptions may be getting to be a bit too much, Roach swings into macabre humor. In some cases, it is needed to restore perspective or aid in understanding both what the procedures are accomplishing and what it is hoped will be learned. In all cases, the comic relief welcomes readers back to the world of the living. For those who are interested in the fields of medicine or forensics and are aware of some of the procedures, this book makes excellent reading.
Pam Johnson, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Series: Alex Awards (Awards)
  • Hardcover: 303 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (April 17, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780393050936
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393050936
  • ASIN: 0393050939
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.9 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (919 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #79,449 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

MARY ROACH is the author of "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," "Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife," "Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex," and "Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void." She lives in Oakland, California.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
247 of 255 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Death is not the end May 20, 2003
Format:Hardcover
This is a book about dead bodies. As Mary Roach demonstrates in her new book, some bodies go on to do remarkable things, such as helping FAA investigators understand why a plane crashed or helping auto-makers design safety features that save thousands of lives. Others are asked to do nothing more than rot away quietly at a research lab where forensic scientists study decomposition in order to improve crime scene investigation techniques. Some are put to slightly more questionable uses, such as the severed heads used by plastic surgeons to practice their facelift technique (surely not what people had in mind when they donated their bodies to science). Others have had even more bizarre adventures. Cadavers have been nailed to a cross in order to prove the authenticity of the shroud of Turin. Severed heads have been poked, prodded, and given transfusions in an attempt to revive them long after they and their bodies have parted ways.
The anonymous cadavers that are the subjects of STIFF could hardly have asked for a livelier or more sympathetic chronicler than Mary Roach, who has managed to write a book that balances sensitivity and respect with a wonderfully sharp wit. In fact, STIFF is unexpectedly and quite blessedly hilarious, although the humor never comes at the expense at the dead bodies that populate its pages. Instead, Roach uses humor as a kind of psychic safety valve, a vital and much-appreciated tension release from what is, at times, some very intense subject matter.
The real highlights of this book are the sections that delve into some of the more disreputable uses of cadavers. There is a droll and utterly hilarious history of body snatching and a short overview of medicinal cannibalism (human mummy confection, anyone?).
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73 of 76 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars And you thought death was depressing--- July 24, 2003
Format:Hardcover
Mary Roach did her homework, and it shows. She has written and information packed, insightful, educational, respectful, and, yes, funny book on what happens to these bodies of ours when we get tired of hanging out in them. I have a newfound respect for all who have donated their bodies in the name of science. Not that I give it a lot of thought, but I figured cremation would be the most logical choice. After reading this book, heck, they can do whatever they want with me. I've always felt an obligation to help others, and if I can continue to do so after I have left this world, then HOORAY.
Meanwhile, expect some odd looks when you are sitting there reading a book obviously about the dearly departed, and you started sputtering, and can't help but laugh out loud! Quirky humour, but that's my favorite kind. Thank you, Mary Roach.
I recommend this book to anyone in healthcare, or the clergy, or anyone even dealing with people who experience loss. It gives you a new perspective.
On the other hand, I will have a hard time ever eating gelatin again...
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48 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stiff August 11, 2003
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
A few nights ago I made a weekend resolution that I'd tackle the much-neglected stack of fiction that teeters on my bedside table. However, while reverentially picking up 'The Body Artist' by Don Delillo, I was distracted by a misplaced reader's copy of Mary Roach's 'Stiff'. Evidently, despite my best intentions, a modest volume of non-fiction had managed to steal it's way into my fiction pile. As morbid curiosity has always been a personal failing, I cheerfully chucked aside 'The Body Artist' and eagerly cracked open Roach's book. For the first time in over two years, I read an entire volume in one sitting.
Roach opens her book with the comparison of death to a pleasure cruise: The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you....

Stiff is, without a doubt, a bizarre yet remarkably engaging read: not surprising since Roach is such a terrific writer. The author possesses the ingenious ability of being able to make digestible the most repulsive of subjects. Curious, yet not callus, Roach manages to ask-and yes, answer-questions often best left unspoken (keeping in mind public decorum). Furthermore, Roach is hilarious. Quite honestly I was surprised at how many times the author prompted (albeit sometimes guilty) laughter. A neat trick that, keeping in mind the grisly subject matter.
Roach gleefully covers merry topics such as: practicing surgery on the dead, embalmment, body snatching, the process of decay, human crash test dummies, crucifixion experiments, live burials, human head transplants, ecological (read: green) releasments, and everyone's all-time favourite- cannibalism.
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131 of 145 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Book with Some New Perspectives on Death April 27, 2003
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
First, Mary Roach has a terrific sense of humor. She takes a challenging subject and finds ways to make you laugh just when you need it. Her humor is irreverent, but never disrespectful. She can laugh at some of the absurdity, yet still appreciate the pain dying can bring.
This is well written, well researched, and thorough. My one, very minor complaint is with the organization of the book. I feel as though it starts much more strongly than it finishes. So, for example, she might have considered organizing the chapters differently.
I don't think you need a particularly strong stomach to read this book. Only one item actually turned my stomach. But when it did, it *really* did.
The book succeeded in making me think about my own death. It also made me think about my mother's death and made it easier to accept certain events. ...
I hope this book will make you laugh and then think too.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Bought it used at a great low price and as always
Weird book, but it was mandatory to have in my class since our writing was focused on this whole book. Read more
Published 1 day ago by Taylor Made
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and Informative
Interesting and funny, this book made me think about rewriting my last wishes to donate my body to science. I even chuckled out loud at some points.
Published 2 days ago by R. Mitchell
1.0 out of 5 stars Meh...
The cover grabs your attention both with the title and photo. The book in general...not so much. I have put this down for the pastmseveral weeks and will reconvene in a bit to see... Read more
Published 3 days ago by Fashionista
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
All I can say is WOW. Scary to think this could be true.
Published 3 days ago by Patricia A. Kananen
5.0 out of 5 stars An exceptionally funny book! It deals with true events which should...
An exceptionally funny book! It deals with true events which should be in a documentary, but is comedy. Very lively and entertaining! Read more
Published 4 days ago by Margie McClelland
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Amazing book! worth a read by everyone!
Published 5 days ago by Robert MacLean
4.0 out of 5 stars Good read if you are interested in this kind of stuff.
I enjoyed reading this book even though I had to put it down sometimes because there is only so much dead body reading I can handle. Read more
Published 5 days ago by TMS
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting topic and writing - but her humor may annoy you
The topic and the particular material Mary Roach chooses to include in this book is interesting in and of itself, and she does an excellent job writing such that a "normal... Read more
Published 6 days ago by TANSTAAFL2
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
As with Gulp, entertaining discussion of difficult material
Published 7 days ago by Dorothy O. Dewing
2.0 out of 5 stars Dull and dare I say it…Stiff
I read almost half of this book but just can't bring myself to finish it. The first few chapters are interesting, but the book got progressively duller the more I read. Read more
Published 8 days ago by Ed O'Donnell
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