I’d seen this book listed once or twice, probably in ‘recommended non-fiction’ or something similar, but I would never have read it if my book club hadn’t picked it for our November book. I grabbed the audiobook and started listening to it with my coworker on a work trip and finished it up on my own later.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Summary from Goodreads:
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.
I thought I was going to be a lot more grossed out by this book than I ended up being. Roach approached the subject in a very scientific and respectful way which made for a great read. She broke the book down into logical chapters and I really enjoyed reading each one. The weirdest part for me was when she was talking about alternatives to cremation and she mentioned McCabe Funeral Home which is down the street from my library! I literally pass it on my way there. Creepy. I’m wondering about inviting them to our discussion, haha.
I think Roach chose good topics for the book. I like that she ended with a personal reflection on her choices of what to do with her body. It made me think about what I want to do with mine. My favorite chapter was the one on automotive research. It’s very similar to what my company does. I knew about Wayne State’s research with automotive crash because I hire their students. I was a bit put off in the audiobook when the narrator pronounced accelerometer ac-CELERO-meter instead of acceler-OM-eter. I’ll get over it, though. Being from Detroit, automotive research and crash testing seem pretty close to home and very relevant to me so I was very interested in that chapter and even listened to it a second time when I fell asleep for a bit of the car ride with my coworker.
I found the part on human decay the hardest to read. The embalming process was fine, but the University of Tennessee lab on decay was a bit much for me. I can’t imagine the smell and what it would be like to see those things. I sympathized with the university employee who was less than willing to go with Roach on the tour. So much of the research in the book was respectful but the decay studies (and the facial plastic surgery practice) were less so and I think that’s what bothered me about it. Though, both of those were at the beginning of the book so maybe I got more used to it as the book went on.
With the exception of the pronunciation of accelerometer, I really enjoyed the narration of Shelly Frasier. She had good inflections for the more gruesome or gory parts of the book and had a good time for Roach’s sense of humor. I’m not sure if I’d listen to her for a fiction novel, I’d have to hear it first, but she was great for nonfiction.
Roach mentions that we don’t give a lot of thought to what happens to our body after we die and to be honest, we don’t need them very much anymore. There are religious implications to body donation for many, myself included, that I think could have made for an interesting chapter. Roach points out that it’s more important that our loved ones can live with what we choose when we don’t have the power to object. They have to live with it while the corpse doesn’t live with anything.
Writer’s Takeaway: Many nonfiction writers keep themselves out of their books and remain neutral. I loved that Mary Roach inserted herself into the story, telling about her visits and research with her opinions and reactions included. It gave a good sense of her personality and it was run to relate to her when she felt the same way and wonder at her when she didn’t. I can’t imagine this approach would work with every subject, but it worked well with this one and I wonder if Roach inserted herself into her other books as well.
A really fun read about a subject I realize I knew very little about. A full Five out of Five stars.
Until next time, write on.