Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

The cover of 'Stiff'

Reading Mary Roach’s Stiff reminded me of having a really great party conversation with someone who happens to have a small volume of esoteric knowledge. It’s witty, a pleasure to absorb, chocked full of anecdotes, peppered with wonderfully weird trivia, and isn’t something you’re likely to get anywhere else. But, like any party conversation, it isn’t meant to go on for too much longer than the duration of the party, which is the only flaw in this otherwise thoroughly entertaining and creepy look at how we treat ourselves after we aren’t ourselves anymore.

I applaud Roach’s approach to the subject matter of the body after death, and her frankness about details that may seem trite or flippant, but comprise the real human texture of the experience. I’m sure that after a few funerals, it’s easier to focus on the emotion and rememberance of the ceremony, but who hasn’t thought to themselves, “What does a dead person look like?” Roach wades into this pool with an enthusiasm that brings to mind both the unabashed curiosity of a child and the controlled guidance of a teacher. This is her strength as our guide through this potentially disturbing or repulsive subject matter. Her humor strikes just the right balance to keep the learning easy and the mind from drifting to melancholy thoughts of death. (Even some of the pre-chapter photography carries the spot-on humor of Roach’s writing with a great deal of wit and deftness.)

However, there are chapters and anecdotes that seem to drift from the subject of cadavers and their treatment to the story of Mary Roach trying to research this book. Her journalistic approach (which is her background, I believe) drifts to lengthy scene-setting and anecdotal yarn-spinning which is certainly entertaining, but also reads like the padding I suspect it is. Stiff is not a long book (224 pages) and towards the latter half the steam (content) seemed to be running thin.

The example of this padding that sticks out most in my mind is in the tenth chapter, “Eat Me”. Roach describes her trip to China to locate a funeral home where some cannibalistic practices were rumored to have occurred. The narrative seems to focus equally on her difficulties in navigating China or anything substantive, and the actual rumors and facts involved. I’m sure if I went to China with little research success, I’d do the same, but it distracted me a bit from the subject matter and wasn’t as interesting to read about.

Roach’s loose and often personal narrative style is Stiff’s strongest and weakest point, but the weakness is slight and by no means a reason not to pick up this book. It’s fascinating, bizarre, fun, and might even broaden your mind a bit.