Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers Summary

Mary Roach

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers Summary

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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers,a non-fiction book opens with author Mary Roach describing a group of surgeons about to practice plastic surgery and facial reconstruction techniques on the freshly severed heads of a set of cadavers. The heads sit neatly in aluminum roasting pans on a table lined with a lavender cover. Roach understands this is a great opportunity for the surgeons to get experience performing the types of surgeries they will perform in their practices; here there is no danger, no pain, and no blood. It is a great improvement over how doctors used to practice their skills on live patients—often without the benefit of anesthesia.

Thus begins Roach’s exploration of the roles that human cadavers—the “stiffs” from the book’s title—play in our lives, and the history of human remains in society. The advantage of working on cadavers is simple, at first. Since they feel no pain and cannot die, doctors are free to practice without the fear of making a life-threatening mistake.

Roach begins to understand how the doctors cope with using dead bodies as part of their training. Though it seems contradictory to the doctors’ ultimate goal, the doctors intentionally shift their points-of-view so they view the cadavers as objects and not people. This makes it easier for them to do their work.

Roach takes a visit to the gross anatomy lab at the University of California San Francisco. There, she observes a memorial service the students hold for their unnamed cadavers. The service is touching, and highlights the respect the students have for the cadavers they have the opportunity to practice on and learn from. These bodies have been gifted to the school—a last bequest from the people who lived in those bodies. They are treated with grace and dignity. Roach notes it is a long way from the days of body snatchers, when medicine, as we understand it, was still in its infancy.

She then visits the University of Tennessee. There, cadavers are used to observe the processes of decay. This is useful for forensic medicine, and she is shown cadavers in various stages of decay, being worked on by an assortment of bugs, animals, and microorganisms. She learns that even embalming does not completely stop a human body from decaying.

At Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, cadavers are used in impact studies. Though using cadavers in this way is very controversial, Roach learns these studies have greatly improved automobile safety, especially in regards to windshields and steering wheels. She also meets with the analyst who worked on the crash of TWA Flight 800. Roach learns that the deceased passengers give clues to what happened just before a plane accident.

She goes on to observe cadavers used in the study of ballistics. It seems violent and unnecessary at first, but Roach comes to understand this research has humanitarian uses, as well. She does not appreciate, however, the use of cadavers in the study of the Shroud of Turin. She believes this is disrespectful to the cadavers, because they are being used in the cause of religious propaganda.

Her next trip has a profoundly different effect on Roach. She travels to the UCSF Medical Center, and observes the study of a “beating heart cadaver.” Seeing the inner workings of a human body fills Roach with a sense of awe. The doctors remove the still-functioning organs.

Roach begins to ponder the nature of the human soul as she considers reanimation, decapitation, and head transplants. She considers some history in this section of her book, especially the use of the guillotine during the French Revolution, and other experiments on the human body. She even considers cannibalism, and travels to China, where human bodies are turned into art objects by replacing all their water with silicone.

The book then turns to funeral practices, burials, and alternative burials. Human composting, while far more environmentally friendly than the traditional method of burial, still elicits unease in most people.

The book closes as Roach begins to contemplate her own body’s final disposition. She decides that, since she will not be around at that point to take advantage of whatever happens to her body, her husband can decide on whatever brings him the most peace.

Although this is a book about dead bodies, it largely covers how the living treat and think about those dead bodies. Human remains, Roach writes, are equally disgusting and beautiful. Death is part of life, and nothing to be afraid of, and when bodies are treated respectfully, they can actually be aesthetically pleasing.

She works through our natural tendency to see the dead human body as a person, and then turns to understanding how people can see them as useful objects that provide society a lot of benefits.

Roach’s main theme is to try to balance our revulsion with the dead human body and the inherent beauty and practicality that the body retains even after death.