“Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.” —Mary Roach, in Stiff
A young woman I know is writing a book about working for a funeral home while she was in high school. “We’d pick up a body—and then go through the McDonald’s drive thru,” she told me, which I considered odd, and gross. But the thought prepared me for reading Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), an entire book devoted to dead bodies and rotting corpses. In Stiff, body snatching, human crash test dummies, and medicinal cannibalism also make a good showing. If you’d like to add a little gore to your reading list for the upcoming Halloween holiday, this book will do the trick. I just saw it on the Barnes and Noble “paperback favorites” table here in Boulder, so it should not be too hard to find.
Even though I was never able to read Stiff while eating dinner, Mary Roach proves to be a humorous guide through this strangely fascinating world. “This book is not about death as in dying. Death, as in dying, is sad and profound,” says Roach, “This book is about the already dead, the anonymous, behind-the-scenes dead.” Always respectful of her subject matter, Roach—who has a background in travel writing—launches into the particulars of cadaver research as if, I imagine, she were taking us on a tour of Paris’ art museums.
Stiff is so entertaining that it must be science writing in disguise. Well-researched and academic when necessary, Roach doesn’t skimp on the technical aspects of her subject matter. And even if you’re only slightly curious about the lives of human cadavers, you’ll still find Stiff a captivating read.