Friday, April 17, 2009

LitRec: Mary Roach

This is not for the squeamish, faint of heart or easily sickened. Stop now if you fall into any one of those categories. Sorry.

But if you are one who can hold your lunch and at times, maybe even have a taste for the slightly morbid (I like to call it eclectic), have I got the book for you – Stiff, The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach.

Back in my newbie medical days, I came across this gem. I didn’t buy it immediately, but each time I returned to the bookstore, the bare feet with the toe tag displaying the title of the tome called to me. When I started to wonder about the book as I fell asleep at night, I knew resistance was futile. The next morning, dressed not in anything that could put me into the emo, goth or disillusioned youth with a fascination for waxing idiotic on my misunderstood nature category (basically I found an Ann Taylor sweater my grandmother gave me for my previous birthday stuffed in the back of my closet), I walked into my favorite bookstore and bought Stiff. I still think I looked like a studious professional with an eclectic (not morbid) taste in scientific literature. I left the shop figuring my black nail polish gave away nothing.

At home, I plowed through Stiff, knowing all the while the moment of truth would come. And lookie here, I have reached the point of said confession. It is a bit sordid, but it is why I obsessed over reading this book so much.

I like dead people.

I don’t see them like a certain little creepy fucking boy, but I do have an affinity for the cadaver. I always have; way before my multiple tours of duties in hospitals, back when I used to want to be one of those forensic body pokers (my Dad was not amused, but I was serious!). As someone whose first few years in the medical field centered around many a dead person, I found this refreshing take on life after demise perfect. It’s function became a sanctuary I could escape to; a way to relieve the emotional tangles dealing with death on a daily basis would inflict on any sane (ok, semi-sane) person. Now, I am the only individual in my family with this affinity and they don’t entirely understand my fascination, but Mary Roach sure as shit did.

She knows all about this world’s love - hate relationship with cadavers. Throughout history, the dead have lived whole existences worthy of epic oratories themselves. Whether their postmortem journeys take them to vehicle crash test sites, NASA launch pads, surgical training for the medical Gods of the future, body farms (I hear there is one in TN – I have yet to locate it physically), crucifixion experiments, organ donation or even whole body carte blanche feast for the scientific senses, there is not a minute in Stiff where you don’t want to laugh out loud, crinkle your nose in disgust or shake your head at the lunacy of the living.

Ms. Roach takes us on this journey, not of death, but of the lives of the dead. From Egypt to medieval Europe to laboratories and medical universities, we see the corpse not as something to be feared, but as a being, not breathing or seeing, but living an adventure all their own. Put in the author’s hilarious perspective, you will laugh your way throughout the piece and contemplating what tomfoolery your own body might get into after death.

But the main thing I took from this book was so much more than just the freaky things we living folk do to the dead (GET YER MIND OUT OF THAT SICK GUTTER!). I walked away with a true appreciation of those who lived before us. Many times in death, they have been the catalyst for our future. Whether ensuring if our vehicles hit an errant tree - we would have adequate protection, helping to guide the virgin hands of surgeons who will operate on a large percentage of us one day or helping humanity to explore the rest of the universe; we are blessed by these deacying guardian angels doing their part to make our world a better place.

Smellyia is not creepy or odd. She just likes to read about funky stuff. Don't judge.


  1. I want both books now. Thanks. Now I'm going to be up all night trying to find the cheapest copies known to man on the internet. You are very funny. I have never seen a dead body so I wonder if I'd have an urge to poke one if I did...

  2. I so understand your fascination with dead bodies. I have it too. Also had the same idea of being one of those post mortem guys! Dunno what it is :s
    Definitely gonna keep an eye out for that book. Looks really interesting, even though I have so many books already on the go...

  3. Here's another rec... The Body Farm by Patricia Cornwell. I haven't read it, but my sister said it was really interesting. It's about the supposed Body Farm in Tennessee. I'm pretty sure it's real, and I think it's connected with the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

  4. As one who currently dissects cadavers (yes, I elected to take this lab), this rec calls to the very fibers of my phalanges. It causes my optic chiasma to uncriss-cross, and my femoral nerves to synapse and release action potentials down my iliopsoas' muscle fibers.

    e.g. need to find a book store pronto.

  5. as soon as i told my sister-in-law that i was gonna go to nursing school, she got me a copy of this book.

  6. Hello,

    This book is AWESOME.

    I've never actually seen a dead person. I've never been to a funeral and the only time I went to the hospital was in the second grade when my sister had surgery on her kidney. I don't usually like blood, guts or thinking about blood and guts. But I love this book.

    I read it several years ago. A friend of mine carried it around for weeks as she was reading it and finally curiosity got the best of me.

    This book was really funny, and it was interesting. I love reading books where as a reader I am introduced to this whole lot of information that I never had thought about before.

    Plus, I LOVE bringing up random (sometimes rather gross) cadaver knowledge in everyday conversation. Melified man anyone?

    I would highly recommend this book, but read on an empty stomach.

    Thanks Smellyia!


  7. I loved this book! Much of my reading is non-fic and I chose this title as part of a class for my Library school master's degree. Her writing is so conversational and it made me chuckle. I've often told myself I should pick up her other work too.
    I wouldn't say I necessarily "like" dead people but I've always had a facsination with death. The first book I ever checked out from the public library when I was 7 was about death.
    Here's to dead (and undead :-) people!
    ~ SW


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