Stiff Summary

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.


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Last Updated on November 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1539


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,

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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...

(The entire section contains 1539 words.)

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