Media Review - Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Author:  Frank Adam
Date:  September 2005

[image #1]How much force can a human face endure during an automobile accident? Can forensic scientists really tell how old a body is by the insect larvae that infest it? Does a human soul have a measurable mass? Questions such as these, though morbid, spark the curiosity of even the most gentle and kind-hearted person. It is in our nature to be curious of death, dying, and all the mysteries that surround the human corpse,for in truth, no one knows what lies on the "other side." However, information and history surround the body that remains behind and perhaps, no one knows more about this topic than Mary Roach, author of the intriguing book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

Roach, a columnist for Readers' Digest and a contributing editor for Discover magazine, delves deeply into the lore of the dead with scientific precision, seeking out facts and figures from pure fantasy. The reader quickly discovers that the adage, "science fact is stranger than science fiction," is without a doubt true. Roach begins her survey of morbid topics by examining the invaluable utility cadavers and their organs have had in bringing medical and surgical sciences to their present lifesaving standards. In ancient times, medicine and its practitioners lacked a thorough understanding of the internal structure of the human body, which did nothing to help sickly patients. However, as early as 300 B.C., Egyptian anatomists began to cut open the recently deceased to see how they were put together. Unfortunately, over time, non-rotten corpses became a hot commodity and history abounds with tales of unsavory individuals looting graves for the dead within, an act that became known as "body-snatching."

Roach continues her survey of post-mortem inquiry with a more modern view of cadavers as she explores their use in physical limitations testing. Everything from automobiles to rubber bullets has been projected at the dead in an effort to understand how much force a given anatomical feature can withstand. Though a ferociously debated topic, the use of cadavers to define the limits of the human body continues to occur in present day society. It is due to this scrutiny from anti-testing groups that facilities keep a very low profile in the media. Roach, however, was able to witness an automobile impact simulation on cadaver "UM006," and recants the incident in a candid and light-hearted manner,though still maintaining the solemnity of the event. Roach claims that in truth, cadaver testing has had amazing benefits to society: it is calculated that as a result of automobile crash testing using the dead, approximately 8,500 lives per year (since 1987) have been saved. Throughout Stiff, Roach manages to sneak such facts into the fabric of her work without having the reader feel as though they are having empty numbers tossed at them.

Another example of her ability to integrate the details of numbers and dates into a broader picture comes from the chapter entitled "How to Know If You're Dead." The chapter describes how a murder trial in 1973 resulted in California being the first state to pass legislation defining brain death as the legal definition of death. It seems from this information that California really does know "how to tell if you're dead" and Roach knows how to effectively communicate it to us.

Roach's style plays another paramount role: it keeps the reading pace lively. One would imagine that an entire book about death and decay would be rather morbid and repulsive and less than conducive to reading. However, Roach assumes the role of an amused skeptic, who recounts her adventures in morgues and cemeteries as though she was meandering through an English garden. Truly, her prose adds a sense of humor to the grim reaper between the lines.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is a book that does not disappoint. It has fascinating facts, captivating experiences, a few gruesome details, and more than its fair share of dead bodies. Roach does a spectacular job of entwining each of these aspects into a witty, informative, and generally entertaining read.