Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach — Reviewed by Guy Portman
This non-fiction work investigates the more unfamiliar scenarios involving our dead bodies. Topics include human crash test cadavers, bullet-testing cadavers, and the virtually all-encompassing medical research field. As well as the crucial contribution that is organ donation, cadavers, we are informed, are being used in more contentious ways, such as the practice of plastic surgery procedures on severed heads.
Environmental concerns surrounding cremation are leading to a search for new methods. One enterprising, eco-friendly Swede has been experimenting with cadaver composting as a viable alternative. Historical cadaver usage is also explained.
Fortunately for the author she has a sense of humour, and she needed it for this book. One chapter sees her visit a field research facility dedicated to the study of human decay. The visit entailed inspecting cadavers in various states of putrescence.
Although Mary Roach applies a light approach to explore this taboo topic, she employs a more serious, empathetic tone as and when required. Her ability to make the scientific aspects comprehensible to the lay reader is to be applauded, as is the decision to omit photographs.
This reader found some sections to be more engaging than others, and he was critical of the excessive utilisation of footnotes. None the less this is a rewarding read that will intrigue those with an interest in the macabre. This work was published back in 2003, and considering the doubtless advances in post-mortem science since then, perhaps a sequel is in order.