Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers Summary and Study Guide

Mary Roach

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

  • 40-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 12 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with a background in literature
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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 40-page guide for “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” by Mary Roach includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 12 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Profound Usefulness of Cadavers and Innovation and Advancement Borne from Gore.

Plot Summary

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is a nonfiction book about the cultural history of the human cadaver, written by Mary Roach. Roach explores how, for nearly two thousand years, the deceased human body has been used in research and experimentation leading to some of the most consequential innovations of the medical, scientific, and mechanical (among others) fields throughout human history. Across cultures and civilizations, death has been shrouded in mystery and taboo, yet many innovations could not have been possible without research and experimentation involving the dead.

Through lively investigative reporting and engaging historical accounts, Roach shows the myriad ways in which modern innovation is borne from research involving cadavers. Revealing how this research has had a profound impact upon the culture, the cadaver serves as the narrative thread as Roach weaves a complex story concerning science, religion, and modern society.

Consisting of twelve chapters, Stiff is populated by morticians, scientists, engineers, and others whose work involves corpses. Chapter One focuses on cadaver heads and facial surgery. Chapter Two provides a history of body snatching. Chapter Three looks at the process of human decay, answering the question of what happens to the body when it is free from embalming and left to its own devices. Impact studies using cadavers—that is, research on how force trauma affect the human body—are the focus of Chapter Four. In Chapter Five, Roach interviews an injury analyst who works on airplane crashes. Chapter Six examines cadaver testing on instruments of war (bullets, bombs, and landmines, for example). Mixing spirituality and science, Roach looks at the history of experiments done to verify the crucifixion (and other religious relics) in Chapter Seven. In Chapter Eight, Roach tackles what seems like a basic question: How can you tell if a living being is actually dead? Before the advent of stethoscopes and other modern medical tools, this was not always readily apparent. Decapitation is the focus of Chapter Nine, and Chapter Ten deals with the gruesome topic of cannibalism. Returning to the present, Roach investigates the burgeoning funeral alternative of human composting and its attendant ecological implications in Chapter Eleven. The final chapter is a personal one, in which the author considers what will be done with her own body after death.

The author is an active participant in the narrative, making keen and sometimes offbeat observations throughout Stiff. Roach interviews morticians, watches human cadaver dissection alongside medical students, and travels to China to investigate an urban legend that the White Temple Restaurant sold dumplings made from human remains. In contrast to the dark subject matter, Roach’s writing style is humorous and breezy. As a seasoned journalist particularly in the genre of pop science, Roach has written for National Geographic, Wired, Discover, New Scientist, the Journal of Clinical Anatomy, and Outside, among others. Roach is not an unbiased observer: she offers up opinions and personal anecdotes throughout the book.

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