Stiff is “a book about the notable achievements of the dead”. Not in the sense of dead white guys, not even in the sense of zombies – but in the sense of literal dead bodies. It turns out a lot of human knowledge is only possible thanks to the contributions of cadavers. It takes a certain kind of mind to even come up with that as a book topic, and have the stomach to research and write it – seven blessings to Mary Roach, is all I’m saying.

Stiff - Mary Roach - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Stiff is a non-fiction book with a few memoir-y touches. Roach mostly sticks to describing the history of using cadavers to advance scientific knowledge, but occasionally diverts into personal anecdotes of her experiences researching the book. Topics she covers include:

  • Using cadavers for medical training (anatomy classes, practicing surgical techniques, etc.)
  • Using cadavers for forensic pathology (studying how they decay, so we can better understand crime scenes)
  • Grave robbing and the early days of dissecting human bodies
  • Cadavers as crash test dummies
  • Organ donations from the brain dead
  • Alternatives to burial and cremation

And – believe it or not – lots more.

Roach doesn’t shy away from the grim history non-consent and disrespect shown to cadavers used for such purposes (especially the bodies of people from marginalised communities). That said, she describes this history in much the same matter-of-fact tone as she describes more palatable aspects of cadaver research. She strikes a good balance between recognising the gruesomeness of the subject, acknowledging the absurdity of it, and maintaining a respectful reverence for the people who make it possible (living and dead).

Stiff shows that the living people who work with cadavers are almost as interesting as the cadavers themselves. Roach speaks to people who chop up bodies so that medical students can use them to learn, people who leave bodies out in a paddock to see how they decompose, people who put cadavers in cars that are crashed at high speeds to test safety apparatus, people who compost bodies as an alternative to burial – can you imagine what any of these people say they do when they introduce themselves at dinner parties?

I found that I put Stiff down often, not because I was disgusted or disturbed but because I wanted to Google something that Roach had mentioned in passing. Other readers might appreciate Roach’s brevity, but I would’ve been happy with a book five times as long that explored all the rabbit holes.

The only time Stiff really showed its age (having been published 20 years ago) was in the chapter about organ donation. One of Roach’s interviewees, whom she spoke of quite highly, was none other than Mehmet Oz – aka Dr Oz, aka snake-oil salesman and failed Republican candidate. Also, trigger warnings weren’t as common back when Stiff was first published, so I’d imagine a lot of readers went in blind; heads up for death and medical research (obviously), but also a lot of animal experimentation. There have been a lot of stomach-turning things done to dogs in the name of research, and those are the only details in this book I could’ve done without.

On the whole, Stiff has held up well, and remains an excellent read for anyone who’s curious about the macabre (or simply has the stomach for the more gruesome aspects of medical history).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Stiff:

  • “After going through Roach’s unfortunate bestseller, one thing is sure, I am not giving my body to science. Had such a tasteless assemblage not been given birth, I might have.” – Marie-Jo Fortis
  • “Would not recommend to anyone. Kinda of an odd choice to recommend without friends thinking you are weird.” – Unie
  • “Bought this for my fiancee and then she decided I wasn’t good enough. She always treated me like I was worthless.” – Chris Gill
  • “Seven or so good chapters crammed into 12.” – Thomas Tomczak