Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by MARY ROACH book is dynamic and vibrant, it can make you laugh and cry in the same time. I simply devoured it, or maybe devour isn’t the right term to use given the book’s subject: cadavers. Mary Roach has a unique writing style and it is a must-read for medical students, but with its easy to understand language, it is accessible to anyone who has the stomach to give it a try.

The first chapter is about practicing surgery on the dead, especially on their heads. The author writes in a comical way, maybe to distract us from the brutality of anatomical practices from the dawn of the first surgical attempts on humans.

Further reading reveals crimes of anatomy in history, such as body snatching, a necessary activity for both medical students and for those willing to gain some money. The terrifying things that the human mind can think of and do are just at the beginning.

The third chapter is about the preservation of human bodies after death and methods that can slow down the decay.

The fourth chapter is about the use of human cadavers as test dummies in the science of impact tolerance.

Furthermore, Roach writes about plane crashes and how body often tell what happened and what was the cause of the accident, playing the part of an organic black box. As if this wasn’t enough, cadavers were put on the front to test various bullets or even bombs.

In chapter six, the author tells us how human heads and catapults had quite a good time together some hundreds of years ago.

Chapter seven is about crucifixion experiments and continues with tales about scientists in search of the soul, live burials and organ harvest.

Chapter nine is about decapitation, reanimation and human head transplant. From my point of view, this chapter is the most shocking in the entire book. At some point it says the story of a French physician named Beaurieux who used the Paris’s public scaffold as his lab. He experimented on a freshly guillotined head that belonged to a man known as Languille, and observed:

Here, then, is what I was able to note
immediately after the decapitation: the
eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked
in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about
five or six seconds…[and] ceased. The face
relaxed, the lids half closed on the
eyeballs,…exactly as in the dying whom we have
occasion to see every day in the exercise of
our profession….It was then that I called in a
strong, sharp voice, “Languille!” I then saw
the eyelids slowly lift up, without any
spasmodic contraction…such as happens in
everyday life, with people awakened or torn
from their thoughts. Next Languille’s eyes
very definitely fixed themselves on mine and
the pupils focused themselves. I was not,
then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look
without any expression that can be observed
any day in dying people to whom one speaks. I
was dealing with undeniably living eyes which
were looking at me.
After several seconds, the eyelids closed
again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on
the same appearance as it had had before I
called out. It was at that point that I called
out again, and, once more, without any spasm,
slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably
living eyes fixed themselves on mine with
perhaps even more penetration than the first
time….I attempted the effect of a third call;
there was no further movement—and the eyes
took on the glazed look which they have in the

Tenth chapter reveals more shocking stories about medical canibalism, a practice that started thousands of years ago, from China to Arabia.

The next chapter brings pros and cons to ‘another ways to end up‘, as the author refers to cremation and composting respectively. Cremation is a polluting agent and it should be illegal, but too many times religious beliefs are far stronger than ecological ethics. Composting is totally organic and eco-friendly, but its sordid and nothing less than that. It is actually a dry-freezing method followed by the cadaver being broken into pieces and buried in airy earth, very near to the surface. The author says that composting a body next to a tree will allow the molecules of the cadaver be absorbed by the roots of the tree and it is the closest to reanimation science ever came to be.

The final chapter is a personal one in which Mary Roach says how she would want ‘to end up‘. Ultimately she realizes that it doesn’t matter what she wants to be in the end, buried, cremated or composted. All that matters is that the way of ending up is easier to cope with for those who loved her and are still alive.

It really doesn’t matter to us, who pass away, but it affects those we leave behind. Pompous funerals and the spiritual, poetic cremation is nothing more than a white lie, something that makes us accept death easier. This book also made me understand that nothing should be let to waste and that is why I agree with organ donors.

In the end I would like to post an excerpt from Chapter 8. It is about a cadaver that donated organs and saved three lives.

But H is different. She has made three sick people well. She has brought
them extra time on earth. To be able, as a dead person, to make a gift of
this magnitude is phenomenal. Most people don’t manage this sort of
thing while they’re alive. Cadavers like H are the dead’s heros.
It is astounding to me, and achingly sad, that with eighty thousand
people on the waiting list for donated hearts and livers and kidneys, with
sixteen a day dying there on that list, that more than half of the people in
the position H’s family was in will say no, will choose to burn those
organs or let them rot. We abide the surgeon’s scalpel to save our own
lives, our loved ones’ lives, but not to save a stranger’s life. H has no
heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her.


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