Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers 1st Edition
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- Tara Parker-Pope, Wall Street Journal
“A laugh-out-loud funny book... one of those wonderful books that offers up enlightenment in the guise of entertainment.”
- Michael Little, Washington City Paper
“As weird as the book gets, Roach manages to convey a sense of respect and appreciation for her subjects.”
- Roy Rivenburg, Los Angeles Times
“Roach is authoritative, endlessly curious and drolly funny. Her research is scrupulous and winningly presented.”
- Adam Woog, Seattle Times
“Mary Roach is one of an endangered species: a science writer with a sense of humor. She is able to make macabre funny without looting death of its dignity.”
- Brian Richard Boylan, Denver Post
“Roach writes in an insouciant style and displays her métier in tangents about bizarre incidents in pathological history. Death may have the last laugh, but, in the meantime, Roach finds merriment in the macabre.”
- Gilbert Taylor, Booklist
“Acutely entertaining, morbidly fascinating.”
- Susan Adams, Forbes
About the Author
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Having said that, I know and understand that human cadavers weren't easily accessible or culturally acceptable as forms of scientific research, so scientists and doctors used what they could get in those times. Mentioning that in passing would have been fine, but I really didn't need or want that same level of detail applied to the discussion of dogs and cats. I just skipped over those sections the first few times, but they just kept popping back up. As I got closer to the end of the book, there were entire chapters devoted to animal research with no mention of human cadavers. There was so much of it that I ended up feeling that the subtitle was misleading.
Then why leave Stiff alone for so many months? For it sat on my desk at the mercy of dust. Tell the truth, I even considered giving it no review at all. After going through Roach’s unfortunate bestseller, one thing is sure, I am not giving my body to science. Had such a tasteless assemblage not been given birth, I might have.
It is a sad decision when a major publishing company decides to go ahead with a project like this one. And indeed I was caught, like I will be in the future, I am sure, in this marketing manipulation. But what Mary Roach’s book ends up being is a collage of indecency.
Why such indignation and what is Stiff about? If you watch Law and Order, or read thrillers and mysteries, you will know what a stiff is. It is the name cops give to cadavers.
That’s what got me interested, the title. It implies what happens on the operating table of the medical examiner. As a mystery writer, I don’t know when the next stiff is going to pop up. And please, don’t think I am using the word in a cavalier way. Neither do the creators of the expression and the ones who shake hands with death every day---cops. Stiff seems just more familiar than cadaver.
But someone is cavalier with stiffs and that is Mary Roach. She is cavalier with death, with bodies, with their dismemberment, with cannibalism. The touch of humor she adds naming her little chapters adds cruelty and lack of sensitivity to a topic that needs to be dealt with sensitivity. She acts like that wounded teenager unable to express her hurt and sending sarcasms and witticisms instead.
But Roach is not a teenager. And she’s addressing a serious topic. The other side of life. The extension of life. Death is not the end of life. Even when it comes to the body. Think of it. Bury it. It becomes part of the earth. Other cells build and combine and enrich the soil. Death is just a name. Life, spiritual or material, never ends.
Roach’s book is a book of misery.
Instances. “A Head is a Terrible Thing to Waste” is the title where Roach (she’s missing a cock in her name; nothing to do with part of you, gentlemen) describes heads decapitated from cadavers carefully placed on trays by medical students. I am sure Danton and Robespierre, would have appreciated the photo that comes with this. (Good marketing for the guillotine.) And the rest of the body, you may ask? Either thrown out or sliced off. An arm is thrown time and again to test the impact of a fall, a leg sees how the breaks of that new car will work. Ping-pong time! See why I and other reviewers changed their minds about giving their body to science? See how irresponsible this is?
Indeed, a head is a terrible thing to waste. Where was yours, and incidentally, where is your heart, Madame Roach?
This is not the worst part. And please, stop eating your sandwich and grab a tea instead, with lemon preferably to settle your stomach, for what I am going to tell you next deals with cannibalism on live bodies. An ancient Chinese practice that extends actually to Mao’s time, it demands a daughter in law to cut a piece of her own flesh so that her new parents (hubby’s parents) can roast or fry her. Roach goes on over a page about this cuisine, and then moves into people fighting on aborted fetuses in a chapter titled Eat Me.
It’s not the writing about cannibalism that bothers me, or the one about science. I am quite sure that fascinating history and ethnology books must be begging under the dust of library shelves to be grabbed. No, it’s not that. It’s the buffet, the little buffet of death presented here to amuse the reader. Pick here, pick there, put a little of each on your plate. Well, I’ve got an indigestion and I may catch a worm.
I think of the cop who, every day, sees dead people. The accident, the murdered, or the little girl raped by her father and who becomes a stiff.
When I was a student at L’Ecole du Louvre, one of the first things I saw was when I entered the museum was the Egyptian section, a culture where soul and skin are inseparable.
When I returned from Spain one summer after learning to kiss, I saw my best friend, 16, dead. She was a gorgeous stiff, my lovely Christine.
As for Mary Roach’s Stiff, I shall extend its life too. When I am done writing this, I will place it in the recycling bin.
Top international reviews
(1) It's fascinating and often (more often than not in fact) quite funny, but it's also divisive, there'll be many readers who will have opposing views on the material it contains; no bad thing because it should open conversations and discussions about subjects that are little talked about.
(2) I want to leave my body to science if possible (and if required).
(3) I want as ecological an ending to my remains as possible if (2) isn't possible.
(4) Mary Roach must have had an absolute ball researching it, travelling to exotic (and not so exotic) places around the world and chatting with some wonderful characters from various fields of medical, scientific, military, and other careers related to the topic.
This brilliant book should be required reading on the curriculum at all high schools, colleges and universities to alleviate the discomfort many people have around discussing the end of life.
There should be TV documentary series made from it and educational DVDs released about it, it's that good, it dispels a lot of myths around many practices from the past and explains the laws and restraints that govern the use of the dead in modern times.
On top of all of that, it exposes the reader to cultural anomalies with regard to life and death, from Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the USA.
It isn't exhaustive but it is in depth, it's extremely well written and brings some levity to an otherwise 'grave' topic.
Continue reading after the reference pages at the rear of the book ! As there's more information. ( I nearly missed it)
Roach's style is not to provide to an academic, library based, review of previous literature. Her style is to go see. The book opens with the author attending a demonstration in which cosmetic surgeons are practising nose jobs on 40 severed heads. Later she jets off to China in a (futile) attempt to verify a story about alleged malpractice in a crematorium, and to Sweden to meet a woman promoting ecological funerals. It's a book with a large carbon footprint.
Her technique is to use jolly, frat boy language to present macabre material (Larf n' Barf, as it's been called). It's not to everyone's taste, although personally I like her sense of humour. The scene in which she asks a stony faced director of a Chinese crematorium whether one of her employees used the buttocks of cadavers to make dumplings is a virtuosic comic performance.
The one area in which I feel she strikes a false note is in relation to experiments on live animals. While I don't see any objection to using dead humans for scientific purposes, using live animals is a different matter. When Roach describes (with evident comic intent) some of the hideous experiments that have been carried out on animals, I felt that she had passed beyond an absence of squeamishness into simple callousness.
But I enjoyed Roach's account of the euphemisms of death. Employees of mortuaries are told to call a dead body a 'decedent', not a stiff, corpse or cadaver. A project using corpses to assess what type of shoes soldiers should wear to avoid getting their feet blown off by landmines was dubbed the 'lower extremity assessment programme'.
Of course, a corpse by any other name would smell as revolting. But some of the linguistic questions she discusses are more than merely verbal. In particular, how should one define death? As Roach points out, when organ donation became a medical possibility (in the 1960s and 70s) it was neccessary to redefine death as 'brain death'. (In effect, organ donation requires a situation in which a person's brain is dead but their organs are still alive.) Otherwise, surgeons removing the living organs from brain dead patients would have been vulnerable to charges of assault or murder.
Also thought provoking was her discussion of the ethical problem raised by the concept of 'informed consent' in giving the body of a family member to science. On the one hand, the idea of 'informed' consent seems to imply that the relatives should be told exactly what will happen to the cadaver. However, this may be needlessly distressing (the relatives might approve of the cadaver being used, but not wish to know the detail).
The final question she raises is the extent to which it is reasonable to seek to control what should happen to one's own body after death, one's funeral arrangements and so on. And how far should the wishes of the dead be respected? Elaborate stipulations as to what should happen after one's death might simply add to the burden imposed on others.
I listened to the recording of Stiff made by Shelly Frasier for Tantor Media in 2003. Frasier reads the book well, but I have two complaints:
(a) she misses out the footnotes (and some of Roach's best jokes are in the footnotes!);
(b) I wish Roach herself had read the book (she has a pleasant voice, and it's always good to hear the author).
Written with a wit that provides an enjoyable journey through a potentially unenjoyable topic.
Made me chuckle and made me think.