by Mary Roach

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Stiff Themes

The main themes in Stiff are the utility of the human corpse, the continuance of personhood, and the absurdity of death.

  • The utility of the human corpse: Roach favors the word cadaver as a way to remind readers that after death, human bodies are no different than the remains of other animals.
  • The continuance of personhood: In Stiff, Roach maintains the humanity of the cadavers she sees—particularly “beating-heart cadavers,” which raise difficult philosophical questions of what exactly makes a person.
  • The absurdity of death: Death, like life, is a little absurd in Roach’s portrayal, even as it is also complex and meaningful.


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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615

The Utility of the Human Corpse

One of the overriding themes in Stiff is the idea that the human body is not massively dissimilar from the corpse of any other animal. What we leave behind after we die, Roach suggests, is essentially the same as what a chicken or cow leaves. Roach's use of the word cadaver is a subtle way of reinforcing this. The word is typically associated with a dead body in a medical or anatomical context; by continually using it throughout Stiff, Roach interrogates the idea—which people so closely cling to—that human corpses are different from those of other animals. The term cadaver, with its connotations of scientific detachment, suggests that the human body (once devoid of life) is simply another type of animal carcass.

Roach continues this theme by making other comparisons throughout the book between human bodies and the bodies of animals, particularly in contexts which serve to remind us that many humans eat other animals without compunction. Roach describes the disembodied heads used by plastic surgeons in training as "the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken." Set in pans, these heads are "a terrible thing to waste"—they are parts of the body to be put to functional use, much as we might put to use the various parts of a nonhuman animal corpse. Corpses are used to test the safety features of cars and to determine, for the purposes of forensic science, how long it actually takes a body to decompose and what the various stages of decomposition look like. For scientists and others, then, the human cadaver is not necessarily a sacred or untouchable thing: it is something that can be of use.

The Continuance of Personhood

It is interesting that Roach, at the same time as she dismantles the idea that the human body is somehow superior to the corpse of an animal and should be considered sacred, still uses language to refer to corpses as if they are people. In the research facility at Knoxville, for example, she notes that "the people lying in the sun are dead." She also attributes emotions and skills to corpses as if they were still alive: they are not "talented," but they are "good at handling pain." On the way to the morgue, a body remains "a patient," a "dead woman." In the chapter "How to Know If You're Dead," Roach explores this issue deeply as she discusses the duality of being a "beating-heart cadaver": that is, someone who remains a patient in that they are alive and well in body, and yet who is also a dead person because their brain no longer functions. Dead people are still people—but if this is the case, what is it that makes someone a person? How can we be dead "everywhere but [the] brain"?

The Absurdity of Death

Roach's book is written with levity. Roach seeks primarily to inform, but she also seeks to entertain, and one of the chief ways in which she does this is by treating death as ultimately surreal, peculiar, and even ridiculous. We have been brought up to fear death, and yet at the same time, the idea of waiting—for scientific reasons!—to determine the exact point at which a corpse will emit a fart is a humorous one. It is also humorous to imagine dead people on their way to serve as human crash test dummies, depersonalized with labels such as "UM 006" but also tasked with seemingly mundane "jobs," much like living people. Death in Roach's book is simply a part of life; therefore, like everything in life, it is just as much ridiculous as it is sad, complex, and philosophical.

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