Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

 I listened to Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach recently. It was an audible audiobook and it was narrated by Shelly Frasier, and this is a review.

The book
Stiff is a book about human cadavers. Because why not? For a while I wanted to be a medical examiner, and then I had this weird period where I wanted to work in a funeral home. I was a weird kid, I’m a weirder adult. I’ve always found it fascinating to see and watch things about ritual and what we do with our dead, and if you get me started on it I will talk about it to exhaustion. This is a sort of history on what people do with cadavers, or what we do with them. I always thought there were two options; donating them to science, or burial/cremation. There is more. Which is great. I’m weird. Cadavers have been used for medical research for a long time. They’re also used for criminal research. They have like body farms, where human corpses are left to the elements and everything, so entomologists and medical examiners can study decomposition. People, I say people, doctors, use cadavers to practice medical procedures on. There are places where you can become mulch, or compost, and sort of give back to nature, which I thought was amazing.

I’m really glad I was told about this book. Or found out, rather, through YouTube, because I’m glad there are people out there who find cadavers fascinating as well. I feel less weird, and less alone. Not the cadavers themselves, but what people do with them, and how vital it is that there are people who donate their remains to science.

I really liked hearing about how medical students try to make the bodies into objects to distance themselves from the fact that this was a person. I also liked that there are medical students who very strictly deal with the fact that these cadavers were people, are very respectful, and have a sort of wake at the end of their studies. And it made it easier for them to deal with the cadavers, which I thought was really interesting.

I liked hearing about Burke and Hare, who basically stole corpses, and killed people to “donate” them to medical schools, for a fee. Like is the wrong word. It’s interesting to see how far people are willing to go to get money. And how willing doctors and scientist were to ignore where people got these “donated” corpses, to pursue knowledge and to learn.

I also really found it fascinating that there is a woman in, I think Sweden, who thought, we could use people to make nature better. That’s probably not how she phrased it. But she basically has this way of making people into compost so they can go back into nature, and fertilize the earth. And that’s such a great idea. We’ve been on the world and… made our mark on it and polluted and screwed up, and when we die we can give back. And that’s good, because burying people takes up a lot of space.

I am fascinated with ritual. I sometimes think I should go back to university to study more anthropology. Because ritual. But what we do with our dead is fascinating, and weird. And it’s just very cool. Because if we’re very objective, and serious, when people die they just turn into this thing made up of bones and muscles and blood. They aren’t there anymore. This is very obvious, but bear with me. Even if they aren’t them anymore you still have this connection to their body. I imagine it is because they are gone, and their body is all that remains, and you want to hold onto it. We suddenly become our bodies. It’s fascinating.

Also, if you look at cemeteries objectively that’s weird. It’s a huge lawn, or field, where we put boxes of people in the ground. Could I be more offensive? Probably. So I like the idea that instead of being buried I could become compost and then help grass grow, or trees. I also, like Mary Roach, will not make anyone do what I want when I die. I would like to be like donated, or something, to give back, but if the person who has to make that decision for me; say I die before my sister, and the idea of donating my remains somewhere is something she can’t do, then she gets to decide. Roach said that if she died before her husband, she would want him to decide, because he’s the one who has to live with it. Which I think is good.


I really liked it. I thought it was funny, and fascinating, and Roach is a great writer. I also thought Frasier was an excellent narrator. She was good. I want to read more Roach.