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Stiff : the curious lives of human cadavers (original 2003; edition 2003)

by Mary Roach

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6,961309518 (4.09)447
Member:riofriotex
Title:Stiff : the curious lives of human cadavers
Authors:Mary Roach
Info:New York : W.W. Norton & Co., c2003.
Collections:Your library, Reviewed
Rating:****1/2
Tags:2012, online book club, nonfiction

Work details

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (2003)

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» See also 447 mentions

English (305)  Italian (3)  French (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (310)
Showing 1-5 of 305 (next | show all)
I had heard of this book for some time, but didn't pick it up until my husband started medical school. After his nearly semester-long Anatomy class, I was interested to learn more about the use of cadavers to train doctors. When did this become common practice? What types of people become cadavers for dissections? Is it similar in other medical schools as it was for my husband?

Needless to say, I not only learned a good deal about the history of the use of human cadavers in medical school, but also a plethora of other ways our bodies can be used once we have passed on. Chapters include researching human decay, testing impact tolerance in car crashes, gleaning information from bodies recovered from a plane crash, using bodies in the army and ballistics, crucifixion, "beating heart" cadavers and the potential for head transplants, medicinal cannibalism, and composting as an alternative to cremation. All of the chapters are engaging and thoroughly interesting (seriously, the stuff you learn is fascinating), with a very clear and well-written narrative. Roach is both entertaining and respectful at the same time, which I appreciate given the subject matter (and something that is probably not easy to accomplish). It became a very quick read.

Seriously, this is one of the best non-fiction books I've read recently - I highly recommend it if you are at all interested in the topic. ( )
  skrouhan | Dec 19, 2014 |
The book was as good, perhaps better, than the radio reviews I've heard. The book is fascinating. I knew of some of the ways that cadavers are used in research and teaching but I still learned a lot of things. Roach writes in a humorous and informative way. Each chapter focuses on a different way in which cadavers are useful to the living or how they are treated by the living. The book in its style and to some degree it's subject is similar to The Mummy Congress; so if you liked Stiff then you'll like the other. ( )
  pussreboots | Oct 20, 2014 |
A fascinating exploration of the different uses within a scientific context of cadavers. While a potentially gruesome subject, Roach brings pathos and humour to a subject many prefer not to think about. Covering a wide range of cadaveric experiences from body farms to anatomy labs to composting remains, Roach remains a sparkling guide to a very strange world. I found myself totally engrossed (and sometimes just grossed out) in this book and while I highly recommend not eating and reading this particular book at the same time, I do definitely recommend reading it. ( )
  MickyFine | Oct 6, 2014 |
Never have my Western morals, pre-conceptions and beliefs been more challenged than when reading Stiff. No one wants to consider their own mortality and make any arrangements for the afterlives of their bodies. Being confronted with the cold hard reality of nature, science and history of death was an uncomfortable, disgusting and enlightening experience. Those of a delicate disposition and strong religious belief will find this a particularly difficult and offensive read. But honestly, they should suck it up and read it anyway, hopefully with an open mind. My views were unexpectedly changed on quite a few issues. Nothing was as clear-cut and simple as I assumed they would be.

I share Roach's feelings towards cadavers:
Cadavers are our superheroes: They brave fire without flinching, withstand falls from tall buildings and head-on car crashes into walls. You can fire a gun at them or run a speedboat over their legs, and it will not faze them. Their heads can be removed with no deleterious effect. They can be in six places at once.’
Cadavers can be:

✺ Used to train doctors. Historically, and currently, controversial. I was surprised by how much respect is shown by students to their cadavers, and I can completely understand why they hold memorial services for them as an emotional outlet for how disturbing it is to injure and deliberately disfigure another (albeit dead) human being. Digital anatomy instruction and/or plastination (I’ll explain later) may replace the dissection of the dead.

✺ Stolen from their graves and sold to medical schools. Thousands of body-snatchers or Resurrectionists (hehe!) made a career out of it, including the infamous murderers, Burke and Hare.

Sex objects, i.e. necrophilia. Self-explanatory, that, eh? *wink, wink*

✺ Used to study decay on body farms, where cadavers are placed in controlled conditions and left to decompose, returning at pre-determined intervals to examine the results, which can later be used to determine cause and time of death.

Embalmed. The ultimate plastic surgery, turning the old youthful once again. Morticians actually have to paint wrinkles on the elderly so their relations can recognise them. Morticians sanitize the body, plug the orifices ("Will we be suturing the anus?") and replace the fluids with formaldehyde, a toxic preservative. Much the same is done with the language used to describe their ‘clients’. Wrinkles are ‘facial markings’, a stiff is the ‘decedent’.

✺ Used to test safety as crash test dummies, improving vehicle safety and ultimately saving lives as a result.

✺ Used to determine the cause of plane crashes. Not all wreckage is recoverable and sometimes only the dead can tell you how and why a plane crashed. This chapter was particularly interesting, detailing many facts about the aerospace industry you really don't want to know if you ever want to fly again.

✺ Used to prove or disprove Jesus's crucifixion. Forgive me, but I believe Dr. Pierre Babet was batshit crazy. To put it more mildly, fanatically religious, obsessed devoted to Catholicism, and didn't much care about the people whose limbs he was cutting off, for perhaps mild injuries, to further his quest for the ultimate, undeniable proof that Christ was wrapped in the, now defunct, Shroud of Turin in 1931. If he did indeed amputate healthy limbs, it was uncalled for. No lives were hanging in the balance. So, for once, I can, while reading this book, definitively say that I would be sickened if this was so.

✺ Used to test munitions, though it’s taboo. The purpose is to take lives in order save lives. Ballistics gelatine and animals are the more common targets. The shooting and blowing up of live pigs and other animals for the training of military doctors, is also controversial. But which would you prefer: dead soldiers and alive pigs, or alive soldiers and dead pigs? I think if you had family and friends in the armed forces you’d rather those pigs die. Honestly, I was horrified when I heard about this practice on the news and yet after reading this, I completely understand why it's necessary. If there were no guns or bombs, surgeons wouldn't need these skills in the first place.

Organ donors. Beating-heart cadavers are brain-dead (i.e. legally dead). On the one hand, one person can save many lives. Alternatively, the actual process is quite upsetting. Organs are removed while the donor still has a pulse, including the heart, which is the last to be cut out, and continues to beat ominously afterwards, for a few minutes. Although gender can be discerned from an ECG by a heart surgeon as they beat slightly differently, contrary to popular belief, transplant recipients do not begin to exhibit traits of their donor’s. A wildly inaccurate myth.

✺ Used to experiment with new surgical techniques. Head transplants have been attempted, both with humans and animals. Real-life Frankenstein here, people. Both disturbing and grotesque. I’m not religious, but even I was throwing out words like ‘unnatural’ and ‘barbaric’ while reading the various experiments. Shockingly, a transplanted monkey head was responsive for a few days before it died. Yes, it’s most definitely cruel, though I took Roach’s point that if a way was found to reattach the spinal column/cord, paralysis could be a thing of the past. Still, this head will only ever know one body and will hopefully remain attached until body and brain are decomposing.

✺ Used for food, i.e. cannibalism. Alive aside, this practice generally isn’t acceptable in the West in current times, apart from the placenta. Historically, and in the East, almost every body part was ingested in the name of medicine. Chinese women used to cut off a body part and cook it for their mother-in-laws. Today, the Chinese still find aborted human foetuses a delicacy. I really want to judge them for this, but wild animals eat their dead. Nothing’s wasted. Personally, I’d be worried about kuru, the incurable degenerative neurological disorder contracted via cannibalism.


Roach details the options for your body after death:


(Click table to enlarge)

Plastination, developed by Gunther von Hagens (you may have been to one of his exhibits or seen one of his TV shows), seems rather gimmicky to me and possibly expensive, though Roach never says how much it costs. For me, the tissue digestion seems the most 'natural', but I won't be surprised if human compost becomes popular since Roach notes the interest of the general public, many investors and funeral corporations, especially in Scandinavia. However, in the final chapter, I was swayed by the argument that it should be up to those you've left behind to decide what happens to your corpse. Or at least a compromise on what you're all most comfortable with to avoid conflicting moral or religious belief. That's if you have that conversation at all. Many don't, at least not in any real detail.

But there's another possibility. Even if you choose a traditional burial, future archealogists may dig up your bones hundreds of years from now and decide to display them in museums around the world. Not much you can do about that. And as I said in the table, a number of cemeteries have been moved or built over, so "your final resting place" may not actually be your final resting place. And in a world with finite resources, including the ever-decreasing acres of land in the face of rampant population growth, showing no signs of slowing, this is the most likely scenario. Better to pick something more permanent, if you ask me, or your naked skeleton could be eyeballed by your descendants, without your permission.

Informed consent is a tricky thing. In ye olde times, doctors and students took advantage of the poor and while performing surgery on them, did a little unnecessary exploration resulting in 'gratuitous pelvic exams' and 'superfluous appendectomies'. Donated cadavers were so rare that body snatchers were more likely to steal the bodies of the poor because the rich had the money to employ thief prevention techniques. Today, people want to know what will be done to their bodies when they donate it to science, and we should have that right, but the reality is so off-putting that you won't be told. You can only specify what it can't be used for.

Roach really takes a sympathetic approach to those that work with cadavers. You can tell she had real difficulty in the first few chapters, coming to terms with her first-hand experiences with the decaying and dismantled dead. Her humour isn't particularly humorous in those moments, because she's clearly uncomfortable and doesn't quite know how to process or write about them. I sympathised. Reading it was discomfiting, being there ... I'm not sure I could've merely observed as Roach did, without running screaming or vomiting my breakfast, especially while smelling the foul stench of decay. I'm fairly certain I could never watch the removal of organs from the beating-heart cadaver. The way it's described, it's too much akin to killing someone, even though you know they're brain dead and will never wake up.

It's hard to be judgmental when the author presents a balanced view on all topics. My initial gut reaction regarding a few things was most definitely disgust and horror, but after Roach told the other side of the story, I found some tolerance and understanding beneath the abhorrence. So if you go in with an open mind, you'll be rewarded.

I urge everyone to read this book, and to seriously consider the issues therein. It may help you decide what you want to happen to your body after you die. Anything that makes a difficult decision a little easier, is a good thing.

An essential, thought-provoking and educational read. ( )
  Cynical_Ames | Sep 23, 2014 |
Roach writes a droll account of the way human cadavers have been viewed throughout history and in our present day. Well, viewed, cut up, eaten, shot, dropped from hundred of feet, etc.

I don't have any problem with her book as a concept, writing about death in a humorous and curious slant. But I do have a few quibbles with the book.

One thing I found a little frustrating was that each chapter of the book could probably be it's own mini-book. The only overarching connection is that all of them will have human cadavers in them as the star (obviously, as the title suggests). But the topics completely alter. I could be bored of one subject and completely interested in another. And I just hate inconsistent books. I know it's no fault of the author, because hey, what else can you do? But that doesn't make me like the book even though I understand why she does this. Specifically, I thought the beginning chapters were fairly boring, probably because she had to go through the humdrum of explaining all the background of cadavers. But the chapters seemed to get more interesting as the book went on and a few topics that I've never considered appeared.

The beginning was boring because it was a detailed account of the history of human cadavers. And although she tries to lighten it up with her humor and commentary, it doesn't really get any more interesting. Especially because most of her commentary is speculation.

See? That's my main problem. My main problem is how she goes about finding and delivering the information in this book about human cadavers. I don't trust her ethos. I don't trust her sources and her very opinions-based source of information. She mentions Dr. Oz in the section about organ transplant (taken from brain-dead patients), and I know from other articles that the medical community is a little eh on him because of his fame in media and his physician-approval for some strange things that aren't scientifically proven. He also hasn't exactly been doing medical practice these days, if I recall correctly. So hum.

She treats her sources like an authority. I commend her for talking to all these experts and people in the industry of human cadavers. But I wish there were more hard facts, something more than a transcription of a conversation and inserted commentary.

I looked up a couple of these articles, a couple of the situations she mentions. I couldn't find anything on a couple of them. Perhaps she has wider sources out there, but ahh... The bit on Oscar Hernandez she writes about being sold to a medical school, she even mentions that she tried to contact him, but it didn't work. So yeah, it's in the footnotes, but not in the actual chapter that this story isn't confirmed. That website about eating the placenta as a placenta cocktail... it's the sketchiest site you can imagine. As if she's just fishing for material to use. As if you believe everything on the internet.
I don't doubt her dialogues. I believe that she talked to these people and this was what she got. I just don't quite believe everything she writes here. And I don't believe that I got the full story on each of the chapter's specific topic.

Perhaps it's because writing a book on cadavers is a difficult subject to find material, and therefore she has to use conversations as authority on the subject. But it doesn't help the fact that it feels like Roach is reaching for more topics to cover as the book goes on.

I do applaud the author for personally travelling to so many different places and talking to so many different people about and for this book. It's like investigative journalism almost. Unfortunately, I was hoping for more hard-core facts.

Two and a half star because it was somewhere in between "it was okay" and "I liked it". It was mostly interesting. But I just can't trust most of it.
Not really recommended to anyone unless you feel like reading an easy "medical" book for a med school interview or something like that. But there are definitely better "medical books" to read. ( )
  NineLarks | Sep 15, 2014 |
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The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393324826, Paperback)

"One of the funniest and most unusual books of the year....Gross, educational, and unexpectedly sidesplitting."—Entertainment Weekly

Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers—some willingly, some unwittingly—have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. They've tested France's first guillotines, ridden the NASA Space Shuttle, been crucified in a Parisian laboratory to test the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, and helped solve the mystery of TWA Flight 800. For every new surgical procedure, from heart transplants to gender reassignment surgery, cadavers have been there alongside surgeons, making history in their quiet way.

In this fascinating, ennobling account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries—from the anatomy labs and human-sourced pharmacies of medieval and nineteenth-century Europe to a human decay research facility in Tennessee, to a plastic surgery practice lab, to a Scandinavian funeral directors' conference on human composting. In her droll, inimitable voice, Roach tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:48:46 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers-some willingly, some unwittingly-have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. In this fascinating account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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