Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Stiff, Mary Roach

My first Mary Roach book!

I’ve had this one my shelf for YEARS, and Mary Roach has gotten really uber-popular lately, and I STILL hadn’t read any of her books. When RIP VIII came up, I hunted around my bookshelves looking for spooky books, and I was happy to realize that I had a book about dead bodies lying around on my shelf! And yay, for working non-fiction into my pile.

So! This is a book about dead bodies – more specifically, cadavers and all their creepy, wonderful uses throughout the years. I immediately liked Mary Roach when I read this in the Introduction chapter:

“Many people will find this book disrespectful. There is nothing amusing about being dead, they will say. Ah, but there is. Being dead is absurd. It’s the silliest situations you’ll ever find yourself in. Your limbs are floppy and uncooperative. Your mouth hangs open. Being dead is unsightly and stinky and embarrassing, and there’s not a damn thing to be done about it.”

Don’t you just instantly love her? The book follows the same semi-whimsical tone, whether she’s talking about heads being used for plastic surgery practice, cadavers being used in crash tests, or bodies being freeze-dried and composted. Overall, I suppose I learned a lot about cadavers and dead bodies. I learned that there are jobs that involve cutting off heads to be used in teaching seminars. I learned that there’s a field that’s just full of cadavers lying in different states of decay, to study for forensics purposes. I learned that there has been research done solely involving cadaver penises. Such weird stuff to think of! And it made me think of whether or not I would ever donate my body to science and the answer is… probably not. Not unless I could be certain that I’d be used in some sort of NASA project in which they launch my body into space. That would be really cool. Otherwise… ehh. I agree with Roach – what to do with a body should largely be the decision of the survivors, with them knowing your preferences ahead of time.

Stiff was informative and funny, but I found some of my middle chapters about cannibalism and cadaver ballistics research a little boring (the cannibalism section was a little nauseating though). I like Roach’s style – she’s witty, cavalier, and intelligent. I love that she’s a writer that writes mainly about scientific things she feels like researching, even though she doesn’t have a scientific background. I’m actually now REALLY interested in Roach’s other books – Packing for Mars, and Bonk, in particular. Space and sex are things I think I’ll find infinitely more interesting than dead bodies.

 Sarah Says: 3.5 stars



  1. This is on my RIP VIII reading list as well! I hope to get to it in October and it will also be my first Roach! I find dead bodies extremely fascinating (morbid confession) and wanted to be a forensic specialist once upon a long time ago. I think her tone and attitude towards what she writes sound right up my alley. Great review!


    1. I think I liked her tone the most. The cadavers were interesting too, but after a while my eyes started to glaze over a bit at some of the more boring historical stuff. I can’t wait to try one of her other books.


  2. I have seen this book so often and I really think it’s one I need to pick up. Though I do like that you said the section on cannibalism was boring cos whatnow? That is not what I’d expect. Nauseating, sure.

    PS I think it’d be so cool to be one of the bodies used in the Bodies exhibit. I wonder if you could donate your body to that but with the stipulation like “I need to be the one riding the horse because I must be epic in death.”


  3. Oh, I’m glad you read Mary Roach! I love her irreverent approach to non-fiction. I really liked this book and I’ll have to check out some of her other titles. She’s an author whom I cannot read straight through, though. Just a couple of chapters at a time and I need a bit of a break, but I love how much I laugh and learn when reading her.


  4. Ooooh, I hadn’t heard of this but I am veeeeery intrigued now! Mainly because she talks about that field where the cadavers are in various states of decay because on Stephen Fry in America he want to that place and it seemed kind of horrible/awesome if it helps train people to solve crimes and stuff.

    Also, VERY NICE WORK fitting non-fiction into RIP! I haven’t read anything non-fiction for soooo long…


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