Stiff is a nonfiction work by Mary Roach that examines the “curious lives of human cadavers.”
- In the book, Roach outlines the many ways that human bodies can be useful to the living after death.
- Roach witnesses many of these applications firsthand. Cadavers are used in anatomical dissection, plastic surgery practice, the study of decomposition, airplane and car safety tests, and more.
- Some of these uses are less ethical. For example, the military investigates the effects of different weapons by using cadavers.
- The book ends with a discussion of a new and eco-friendly method of laying people’s bodies to rest: composting.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003) is journalist Mary Roach’s deep dive into the world of life after death. This is not the “afterlife” as many might conceive of it: Roach approaches the topic in a sense more literal than metaphorical, more temporal than metaphysical. Observing surgeons, morticians, scientists, and engineers work over corpses, Roach records a vivid, funny, and eye-opening account of a taboo subject. Her humorous, compassionate voice lends considerable dignity to a subject often approached with revulsion or fear, and forces the reader to compassionately consider the unimaginable. Along with cadavers, the protagonists of Roach’s book are the doctors, technicians, and environmentalists who labor over decaying flesh for larger causes. Underlying the eleven chapters of Roach’s book is her clear-eyed belief that, despite the perceived indignity of dismemberment, the fate of cadavers may be better than that of corpses. In its usefulness for organ donation, science, and the environment, a cadaver is a “superhero.” Roach writes,
To me, ending up an exhibit in the Mutter Museum or a skeleton in a medical school classroom is like donating money for a park bench after you’re gone: a nice thing to do, a little hit of immortality.
An account of immersive journalism, Stiff takes the reader to unexpected places—beginning with a seminar for a “face-lift refresher course,” where cosmetic surgeons demonstrate their technique to students on forty severed human heads. Roach notes that the heads are placed in roasting pans “to catch the drips,” which in turn are set atop tables covered with lavender-colored plastic sheets. The reason the sheets are lavender tidily illuminates how professionals dealing with corpses manage their jobs:
I mention to the young woman whose job it was to set up the seminar this morning that the lavender gives the room a cheery sort of Easter-party feeling. Her name is Theresa. She replies that lavender was chosen because it’s a soothing color.
As the seminar shows, cadavers are essential to teach human anatomy to medical students. Before the advent of dissection, knowledge of how the body works was sketchy at best, with one ancient physician noting, for example, that “three burning spaces—the thorax, the abdomen and the pelvis—are together responsible for the sewage system of the body.”
To further ground the importance of cadavers in modern medicine, Roach travels back in time in chapter 2. Dissecting the human body was taboo until the late eighteenth century. Because it was still illegal at this time, however, sourcing cadavers remained a challenge, and many corrupt scientists kept “grave-snatchers” on their payroll. The ethical availability of cadavers in modern medicine, made possible through the generosity of people pledging their bodies to science, has infused much-needed dignity into the science of dissection. In contrast to the disdain for cadavers prevalent in the Victorian era, many contemporary medical departments even hold memorial services for cadavers, with students quoting poetry and singing folk ballads to bid “their cadavers” a fond farewell.
Further, to refute the notion that cadavers are more disreputable than corpses, Roach moves on to observe the natural process of the body’s decomposition in chapter 3. At the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center, known colloquially as a “body farm,” Roach trails forensic anthropologist Arpad Vass through a grove where bodies lie in the open in different stages of decomposition:
The people lying in the sun are dead. They are donated cadavers, helping, in their mute, fragrant way, to advance the science of criminal forensics.
From the “fresh” corpse whose navel is crowded with maggots like “squirming grains of rice” to the woman who is...
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“further along,” her tissues leaching into the soil around her, the bodies testify that breakdown is never pleasant. Therefore, Roach argues, being dissected for medicine is not the worst fate imaginable after death. Mother Nature’s own inexorable processes are horrific enough.
In chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7, Roach observes the use of cadavers in spheres other than medicine: in automobile and airline safety, the army, and religion. Although deliberately hitting a cadaver with a “linear impactor” may seem gristly, Roach notes that the practice of using real bodies instead of dummies in crash testing is necessary to develop safer automobiles. First adopted by General Motors, the practice has led to a dramatic decrease in car crash–related deaths in the United States:
Over the past sixty years, the dead have helped the living work out human tolerance limits for skull slammings and chest skewerings, knee crammings and gut mashings: all the ugly, violent things that happen to a human being in a car crash.
While Roach feels the use of cadavers in automobile and airline safety is justifiable, she is conflicted about the use of cadavers in the army, specifically to study the effects of different weapons on the body. She notes that the dubious practice of shooting cadavers still persists, though at a dwindling rate, with armies now preferring to use materials like “ballistic gelatin,” which is formulated to mime human tissue. Roach concludes that the ethical questions around the use of cadavers in weapon development could be resolved if people consented in advance to their cadavers or those of their loved ones being used for the purpose.
Roach’s reservations about the ethics of cadaver use grow deeper still when it comes to religion. To illustrate her stance, she describes an incident from history: the use of cadavers to determine the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, the piece of linen in which believers think Jesus was wrapped for burial. In order to confirm that the piece of cloth that had landed in the French Catholic Church in 1931 was indeed Christ’s relic, French anatomist Dr. Pierre Barbet conducted a series of macabre—and, in Roach’s opinion, ultimately pointless—experiments on cadavers:
Barbet used the angles of the purported blood flows on the shroud to calculate what Jesus’ two positions on the cross must have been . . . Barbet then tried to verify this, using one of the many unclaimed corpses that were delivered to the anatomy department from the city hospitals and poorhouses.
In chapter 8, Roach observes organs being harvested from “H,” a “beating-heart cadaver.” This is a body whose brain activity has ceased while their heart still pumps blood—thus making it a perfect candidate for organ harvesting. Though such organ donations may be difficult for families and loved ones, Roach argues that if they were made aware of the tremendous benefits of organ harvesting from brain-dead patients, their decision would be easier:
H is different. She has made three sick people well. She has brought them extra time on earth. To be able, as a dead person, to make a gift of this magnitude is phenomenal. Most people don’t manage this sort of thing while they’re alive.
Finally, in chapters 9, 10, and 11, Roach turns her attention to macabre and unusual practices around cadavers, as well as the newer ways in which cadavers can be useful. Roach notes how the invention of the guillotine in France in 1791 lead to a surplus of separated heads. With the popular belief that the head was the “seat of the personality,” it was just a matter of time before scientists began to mix and match heads and bodies, starting with dogs. As recently as 1971, a doctor attempted a head transplant between two monkeys. Astonishingly, the simian pairs of his experiment managed to survive between “six hours and three days.” Roach wonders if heads could be transplanted from human cadavers in the future, and if the experiment would be helpful.
If humans volunteering themselves for medicine while alive is the future of cadaver use, it has a precedent in the past, as Roach demonstrates in chapter 10. Starting with the mention of the remedy of the “mellified man” in Chinese texts, she explores the concept of medical cannibalism. Preparing the mellified man was an extraordinary recipe that began with a living human volunteering himself as a “cure.” Roach quotes,
In Arabia there are men 70 to 80 years old who are willing to give their bodies to save others. The subject docs not eat food, he only bathes and partakes of honey. After a month he only excretes honey (the urine and feces are entirely honey) and death follows. His fellow men put him in a stone coffin full of honey in which he macerates . . .
Apparently, topical application and oral consumption of the mellified man provided instant relief for limb wounds. Roach researches ancient and medieval texts from around the globe to show how human bits as diverse as dandruff and liver have consistently been used as medical cures.
Given such interesting uses of cadavers, perhaps a nicer way to end up is through becoming biofuel. In the book’s final chapter, Roach travels to Sweden to meet Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, a biologist working “to replace cremation (the choice of 70 percent of Swedes) with a technologically enhanced form of organic composting.” Wiigh-Mäsak proposes composting bodies in a controlled environment. She argues that if people were to remove some of the empty ritualism around burial and the dead in order to dispose of corpses in an eco-friendly manner, the afterlife could be truly Edenic for the planet as a whole.