Review of “Stiff” by Mary Roach


Here is an uncharacteristically positive review for “Stiff: The curious lives of Human Cadavers” which I wrote for the StudentBMJ in 2004.  It is a very entertaining book, if you happen to find this sort of thing interesting.  You might just have enough time to buy it before Xmas if you are short of a present…


I have spent the past few years deeply embroiled in the study of how to prevent Londoners from dying. But I have never devoted much time to wondering what happens to their remains once they are actually dead. Nevertheless, human remains have something morbidly interesting about them, and this subject provides American journalist Mary Roach with more than enough material for her fascinating book.

Many people donate their bodies to science with the hope that in death they may help others to live more successfully, so conferring a kind of immortality. But beyond the donating of organs and dissection, a world of alternative fates exists for our earthly remains, and Roach guides us through a banquet of possibilities. A cadaver really is useful to research, like a person in many important respects—size, shape, tissue type—but totally without complaint as it unflinchingly researches car crash injuries or bullet wounds. As a result, cadavers have been used in the development of many of the surgical advances of the past century and continue to be used in training. Cadavers were used to research the Turin shroud, left out in the sun for forensic research, used to test France’s first guillotine, and provide valuable clues as to the causes of passenger aircraft disasters.

As the pages rack up, Roach widens her remit to issues relating to death and the dead and as she does takes the opportunity to draw on many amusing stories of quackery. One that I remember is that of the creative French doctor Jean Bapiste’s technique of rhythmic tongue pulling to emphatically establish death and of others’ attempts to weigh the body before and after death to determine the weight of the soul. Stiff also describes more recent attempts at head transplants and a Swedish movement to encourage the composting of human remains.

This subject could be very dull in the hands of many pathologists, but the non-medical Roach brings an impressive insight and, as a writer, has a witty and irreverent style. Stiff is informative, entertaining, and funny and as a result is a much more enjoyable read than your average popular science book.



Leave a Reply