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STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

What happens to our bodies after we die? What is done with the human body after it is no longer inhabited? More than you might imagine. Mary Roach’s “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers provides a fascinating and humorous historical exploration of the role cadavers have played in the world of the living.

Incisive, thorough, and occasionally touching, “Stiff is a New York Times bestseller and has garnered numerous other accolades from publications such as The San Francisco Chronicle and The Seattle Times. Since the book debuted in 2003, Roach has written five other books on popular science, researching taboo or under-investigated topics and rendering them accessible to the average person. While neither a journalist nor a scientist, Roach’s tenacious research process involves in-depth interviews with professionals, often on the field.

Stiff is a valuable read for the curious and less squeamish mind; opportunities to learn in-depth about the science of death while also being entertained are uncommon. Unavoidably, the book addresses a variety of fundamentally unsettling concepts, and most will want to avoid reading it before dinner. However, the cringe factor is incidental to the facts, which are excellently researched and simply presented.

The book is a tribute to science and the dead, rather than a provocative gorefest. In her introduction, Roach writes, “Cadavers are our superheroes. This is a book about notable achievements made while dead.” She takes the reader through a tour of the history of cadaver usage, detailing both the uncomfortable mistakes of the past and the incredible advances of medical science today — and often the grey areas in between.

Paying keen attention to the ethical implications of each area researched, in addition to the nitty-gritty facts, “Stiff touches on areas as disparate as organ transplants, human crash-test dummies, criminal forensics and medical cannibalism. Our bodies have far more of an influence on the world after we die than most of us realize, and Roach is out to inform us how. If you’ve ever wondered how exactly engineers determine what makes a car safe, or how precisely plastic surgeons get their training, this book is bound to help you out.

An author who writes about dead bodies and all the indelicate issues they involve risks coming off as sensationalist or insensitive, but Roach treats her subject matter with dignity; she avoids sugarcoating information without becoming ghoulish. Smart, well-timed humor is a significant component of her writing style, a factor which makes “Stiff stand apart from similar popular science works — however, none of the laughs are mean-spirited. Out of every horrified, involuntary giggle Roach provokes from the reader, none of them are at another person’s expense.

Unflinching but never macabre, unsentimental but always gentle, “Stiff” is worth braving a little bit of nausea in exchange for a new perspective.