• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #19: Stiff, the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers


(Insert footnote joke here)

I'm not entirely sure how to categorize Mary Roach. She's sort of a comedic travel writer, but instead of taking us to places, she takes us to a topic. Sort of a Bill Bryson but more incisive, more adventurous, less prim. (Don't worry, we'll visit with Bill soon enough.) Grunt, Gulp, Bonk, Spook - the one word titles of her books are evocative and slightly vague, inviting us to delve with her into the unexplored corners of the human condition. She doesn't pretend to be an expert, but rather is one of us, a curious diarist, an investigative fellow tourist.

"Stiff" treads - and not very carefully - on some fairly unsettling territory, asking questions about what happens to us after we die. Not spiritual or metaphysical questions, but logistical ones. She visits mortuaries and dissection rooms at medical schools. She spends time with the FBI, observing ballistic tests on how bullets interact with human bodies, and walking the forensic decomposition fields to see how you can date a time of death by how much work bugs and worms have gotten done. Airplane safety investigators share their work on dropping human cadavers from great heights over the ocean to see how they break apart on impact. Roach is not squeamish, and both her wanderings and her prose are fearless. If you haven't read it, you should.

Roach has said she undertook "Stiff" to encourage people to consider organ donation. After all, this flesh of ours is just a rental. If someone else can benefit from it after we've moved on, that seems like a good idea to me.

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