Dead bodies are not supposed to tell stories, especially not stories of a kind of terrible beauty, nor are they supposed to have a purpose. Dead bodies are just that: dead. But in Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach’s witty, entertaining, yet honest and respectful book, she reveals something more than the often macabre state of cadavers: a sort of aesthetics and pragmatics of dead bodies.
Roach sets up an aesthetic in her telling of the “frothy purge” of decomposing brains and the fat-eating maggots—"tiny white slivers” that look like “rice paper"—squirming below the surface of the skin of a decaying body. People who work with the dead use metaphors such as “decedent” and often think of decedents as objects like wax figures to make sense of what it is they do for a living. There is also the “tidy” and “pleasing precision” of human heads arranged just so in aluminum roasting pans on lavender-tablecloth-covered tables, waiting for plastic surgeons practicing face-lifts, all without the untidiness of blood. There is the funeral industry’s music, flowers, and embalmed, finely dressed bodies resting in beds of satin.
“Death,” Roach writes, “doesn’t have to be boring.” It can be useful. Dead bodies have been used for medicine and science, for art (in plastination, a body part’s water is replaced with a silicone polymer, preserving it for display), and the environment (the human compost movement). Roach makes clear early in Stiff that dead bodies are useful without really enduring anything, that is, they don’t feel. Still, Roach’s graphic and fascinating detail reveals that dead bodies do indeed endure something in another sense: they “undergo.” Dead bodies are useful, and are almost unthinkably aesthetic, when they soften up (contradicting the book’s title) through decomposition and putrefaction (forensics), and when shot at with bullets (protective gear design) and crashed into walls (automobile design), and their injuries even help tell the stories of airline disasters.
Mitigating sentience in dead bodies dehumanizes them, making it possible for Roach to write a book about how stiffs can be useful to society and even aesthetically pleasing.