Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
303 pages
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
3.5 Stars

Review by: Rebecca M. Ruddy

In Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach explores the many ways human cadavers have are used, and have been used in the past for medical and scientific research purposes. Roach ventures from the use of cadavers in medical school anatomy classes, to techniques used in the 1800s to determine cause of death, and to alternatives to burial and cremation. While the subject matter is quite morbid and could have been sad or morose, Roach approaches the material with a light-hearted candor and humor that makes it an enjoyable read while still maintaining the respect for which this subject calls.

In the first chapter, Roach writes of her visit to an anatomy laboratory where she observed students learning about facial anatomy and face-lifts on human heads. She discusses the practice of objectification wherein people working with cadavers think of them as objects to limit any emotionality and make it easier to dissect them. However, there are memorial services held by the school at the end of the year for the cadavers, attended voluntarily by the students to honor the individuals who donated their bodies to science. It was interesting and comforting to know that the cadavers are treated with such respect.


In the chapters that follow, Roach provides an interesting look into the use of human cadavers for determining the cause(s) of plane crashes, developing or improving weapons for the Army, and for crash tests as dummies. It was fascinating to discover all of the uses of human cadavers and the advances in safety that have occurred as a result of their use in research. An interesting and surprising chapter centers on the use of human cadavers when a black box is unrecoverable or damaged following a plane crash. Scientists are able to recover the cadavers from a plane wreck, specifically one that occurred over the ocean, and assess the damage to the cadaver along with the location of the person on the plane to piece together the exact cause of the crash. These surprising uses of human cadavers are fascinating to read because, although it is more well known that testing is done to ensure safety of cars and to improve military tactics, it is not generally known that cadavers unravel the mysteries of plane crashes.

The history of human cadavers in science is explored toward the end of the book. Although it is essential to learn about the history of cadavers and how their use first began in research to appreciate how far studies on human cadavers have come, it is a bit lengthy. A particular chapter about cannibalism seemed to be more anecdotal about the author’s journey to discover the truth about what she had read about cannibalism, as opposed to hard facts and research. However, the chapter regarding studies performed on human heads (“Just a Head”) following decapitation and head transplants is particularly interesting.

Overall, the purpose of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is to provide the reader with a broad understanding of the uses of human cadavers today and in certain parts of history. This book is filled with intriguing stories describing the author’s journey to various laboratories and research sites to provide a look into what it means to “donate your body to science”. In the end, Roach also sheds light on what she would choose to have done to her body once the time comes. She offers an interesting perspective given the amount of research she has done for this book. It also allows the reader to take an introspective journey and determine the fate of their body after death. This book was an intriguing and fascinating read and offered the reader an exciting look into the world of human cadavers in a surprisingly humorous and enjoyable way.