kella’s CBR-III Review #6: Stiff-The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

I had originally heard about this book in a Pajiba review a couple years ago, and had made a mental note to add it to my “must read” list.  When it was reviewed again during CBR-III, I put it on hold at the library.

Mary Roach spends 294 pages discussing human cadavers- their history, their uses, and the many ways to dispose of them.  At first glance, that might seem like a morbid and horrifying topic, but I found it fascinating.

I went to one of the only non-medical-school universities in Canada that had a cadaver lab for its anatomy students to use.  The semester before those classes, I was terrified of the experience; an experience that turned out to be one of the most fascinating and informative of my entire education.  Roach’s first chapter talks about cadavers in school labs, and I found it interesting to find that my experience was well represented in hers – the bizarre balance between having the highest respect for the donation that these individuals made to science, while trying to not think of them as people so that your emotions stayed in check.

While that was an aspect of a cadaver’s “life” that I was familiar with, I was fascinated to learn about their roles in testing firearms, vehicle safety, plane crash investigation, and use as fertilizer.  I had never thought about the historical implications of cadaver dissection, the practice of cannibalism in some cultures, and the ever evolving funeral business.

Roach is able to write about all these topics with both a sense of humour and a sensitivity to the fact that while you may be able to distance yourself from this random cold body, that cold body was once someone’s very warm loved one.  It’s a book that is definitely not for the squeamish, but I found it to be both highly informative and entertaining (not an easy combination to pull off!).

I know that what a person decides about the final resting place of their remains can be a highly personal decision, affected by many factors, and I was wondering if this book would change my mind about what I would want done with my body.  If anything, it reaffirmed my decision that if any part of my body can be used (either through organ donation, or through a whole-body donation to science/research), I would be honoured to be counted among those whose death was their last act of helping to better the lives of others.


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One response to “kella’s CBR-III Review #6: Stiff-The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

  1. I have read this book also! Roach presents such an interesting look at death and after death experiences for the living, as well.

    It is wonderful that you would also like to become a whole body donor to advance medical science.

    I actually work for the first no-cost, nationwide whole body donation program in the U.S, Science Care ( We recommend only signing up with a program that holds to the highest quality and safety standards and, at the least, has been accredited by the American Association of Tissue Banks. Science Care was the first to become accredited in the United States and continues to actively lobby for responsible tissue banking by way of accreditation. You can see the full list of accredited non-transplant tissue banks on their website:

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