Dr. Fred Bortz

Review of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

by Mary Roach

(Norton, $23.95, 304 pages, April 2003)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Readers who enjoy Stiff, may also enjoy Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by the same author, and coverBodies We've Buried by Jarrett Hillcox and Amy Welch, with Foreword by Dr. Bill Bass

When in the corpse of human events

Funeral practices may be a dead topic, but the prose here is lively

Anyone who has spent any length of time on a congregational board knows the feeling. A question of funeral practices appears on the agenda, and, inevitably as death itself, nervous laughter begins. The articulate become tongue-tied, the somber crack jokes, the stolid fidget in their chairs, and everyone without exception pays rapt attention, because this topic is both personal and universal.

That scenario could equally well describe an encounter with Mary Roach's Stiff. Though the cover and morbid fascination about what happens after life's final transition will draw many browsers to this book, its deft prose will keep them returning to its many anecdotes about -- as the subtitle puts it -- The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. With a subject like this, you've got to keep them laughing to keep them reading.

But mortuary and anatomy lab humor can be overwhelming, even if it is -- you should pardon the expression -- disarming. Readers feel guiltier with each guffaw, so Ms. Roach confronts the issue in the Introduction. (One might say she approaches it "head-on," but that term does not always apply in later chapters.) Her perspective is this: "Being dead is absurd. It's the silliest situation you'll find yourself in,... unsightly and stinky and embarrassing, and there's not a damn thing to be done about it."

To her credit, Ms. Roach immediately follows that by drawing a distinction between cadaverhood and the process of achieving it. "Death, as in dying," she writes, "is sad and profound. There is nothing funny about losing someone you love, or about being the person about to be lost." That takes an edge off the guilt and prepares readers to delight in the squeamishness of the remaining chapters as they might enjoy the terror of a monster coaster ride.

Every stop on the tour is the end of the line: medical school anatomy classes; research fields where cadavers decay naturally for science; engineering laboratories where cadavers do what crash dummies cannot; morgues where human remains tell plane crash investigators what happened when most of the fuselage is lost in ocean depths. Readers encounter the phenomenon of beating-heart cadavers, made possible by modern medicine to the benefit of transplant recipients. And, "Holy Cadaver!", they learn about scientific studies of crucifixion. The wary might be inclined to skip entire chapters on beheading and medicinal cannibalism, but it is better to skim them, so as not to miss stories like the author's search for a restaurant in China that supposedly served human butt cheeks.

That would be an appropriately meaty end for the book, but Ms. Roach closes with a menu of a different sort. What would she and her readers prefer for themselves: burial, cremation, the newer technologies of chemical digestion and composting, or donation for research or education? That's too serious a decision to undertake without laughing. Make no bones about it!

Physicist and children's science author Fred Bortz's latest undertaking is the six-book Library of Subatomic Particles to be published in January, 2004.