In my quest to read more non-fiction this year, I went ahead and bought this book which I’ve been hearing about for a long time. As someone who gorges on police procedurals on a regular basis (let me tell you about my feelings for Idris Elba’s Luther one of these days), the subject matter is right up my alley.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is a series of long form essays by journalist Mary Roach that tackles the adventurous (after)lives of corpses that are used for scientific research. From the long-standing and ghoulish tradition of bodysnatching for medical schools to the relatively recent educational facility called the “body farm,” Roach examines not only the mechanics of corpse-related experimentation, but also the ethical and practical implications of doing such work.
It took a while to get used to the conversational writing style; I expected some sort of journalistic distance in the POV but it ended up being a first-person narrative. I can understand why people might find it tiresome, but I think the authorial presence is a nice counterpoint to the subject matter itself. The moral implications of what humanity does to corpses and what it tells about us can get very alienating, so Roach’s persona works well as an incredulous stand-in for the reader.
A great deal of research was obviously involved in the project, often discussing historical precedents and the follies scientists often go through in order to prove their hypotheses. Did you know that Thomas Edison designed an apparatus which aimed to prove that the soul is made up little bits of “etheric energy?” Now you do. Roach does a good job in sketching out the personalities of those who work in this kind of research, often relating episodes of inadvertent humor in the laboratory.
While I would’ve liked a little more in-depth detail, I understand that this book is aimed to be a cursory look into a branch of science that has often been overlooked for the sake of propriety. I found the sections relating to organ donation and people’s intense emotional reaction to it particularly fascinating. Roach takes great pains to emphasize that society’s hang-ups regarding the dead has nothing to do with our deceased loved ones. It’s the sensibilities of the living that are often in turmoil.
Recommended only for those with a strong stomach because believe me, things can get pretty graphic within these pages.