The Cadaver: A Curious Life

April 1 2014
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Death… It will happen to each of us, so we might as well be aware of some of the options for our bodies after we’ve shaken off these mortal coils. In her fascinating bestseller Stiff, Mary Roach details topics from dissection to decay, live burials to body-snatching, human head transplants to medical cannibalism, all the way through to what can happen to your body after you’ve donated it to science. (Hint: you might end up getting that bump removed from your nose.)

If you’ve ever enjoyed a visit to the Mütter Museum, an anatomy class, or a more murderous episode of Law & Order, put this book on your reading list, stat.

One might think that such a dire subject would be rendered dry, humorless, or disgusting, and Stiff certainly can be the latter at times (moldy corpses, human ear wax used medicinally, carnivorous beetles, a particularly nasty-sounding airline meal), but Roach is the perfect author for this topic. She has infused these pages with her signature sense of humor, a welcome relief to what could be a very grim discussion. The book is informative, juicy, and always served with a comforting level of respect. Stiff is a satisfying elixir of science, culture, myth, reflection, oddities, wit, and some really awesome photos. There are curious ponderings sprinkled throughout. In one instance, Roach asks, “Does everything have a father?” (as in “the father of” vasectomy reversal, or hillbilly jazz, or lichenology). She does make one wonder.

Death is a multibillion-dollar industry and can be a taboo subject. Many people cannot discuss death, or dying, at all. This book is not for them. But for those of us who find body farms intriguing, are made curious by the existence of brain banks, or ever questioned just what an embalmer does with all those shiny implements, Mary Roach’s noble and eloquent book is a great place to start learning about the end.


Mary Roach

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