Wondering about death and dying is a natural part of being alive. Just about everyone has spent some time pondering that big question, "What happens when I die?" Mary Roach's book, Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, is one source you can head to for answers to some of the more physiological questions you have about death. Let me tell you, you'll find answers to just about every question you had, and answers to questions you would never have even thought to pose in the first place.
Fact: Mary Roach writes cool books. Here's a woman who knows how to choose subjects that raise eyebrows, spark curiosity, and ultimately, draw many readers. In Spook, Roach investigates the science of the afterlife, and most recently, she takes an up close and personal look at sex in Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Not being the squeamish type, as soon as I clapped eyes on Stiff's startling cover, I was eager to find out more about the various and incredible fates of cadavers from past to present. Roach's book is absolutely teeming with information. She covers the use of cadavers in medical training, the study of human decay as it relates to forensics, human crash test dummies, cadavers in military testing and crucifixion experiments, and even medicinal cannibalism. If it's about human cadavers, it's here.
When I was about one third of the way through this book, I took twisted pleasure in sharing anecdotes from some of the more unusual sections to shock / amuse / disgust friends and family. Not exactly topics fit for dinner conversation, though. There was an element of boasting that went along with this too, since I proclaimed not to find it that difficult or disturbing to read even the most macabre chapters of the book. Obviously, I should have considered medicine as a career, given my iron stomach. Roach has an engaging style, and laces her writing with wry humor. I can't say that I thought it was, "uproariously funny" as did Publisher's Weekly, but Roach managed to keep the tone light enough in places to balance the darkness inherent in her subject matter. I found, however, that Stiff becomes progressively more and more gruesome as you go. By the time I got to Beyond the Black Box: When the bodies of the passengers must tell the story of a crash, there wasn't much chuckling going on. It was at this point that I started wondering, "Do I really want to know?"
Besides all of the fascinating information about the origins of the discipline of anatomy, and incredible behind-the-scenes glimpses into the medical realm, you'll find a lot that's unsettling and potentially disturbing in Stiff. Let's just say that there are parts of what I read here that will stay with me for a long, long, time. It'll take a serious injection of Gossip Girl to dull some of the images I encountered in Roach's writing. Stiff has a mesmerizing quality, but at times, it almost feels like too much information. Reading it made me think about my own mortality, what I believe in and what I want to happen to my body after I die, yet there were places when I felt overwhelmed. Just because we can locate information about a topic (e.g. how scientists use human remains to determine the cause of airplane crashes), does it follow that the general population really needs to know? There were certainly moments when I considered that my response to Stiff would differ greatly if I had recently lost a loved one after prolonged illness, surgery, or in an accident.
Stiff is entirely worth reading. Clearly, Mary Roach invested tremendous research in her book, and her writing is conversational and droll. I might go so far as to say that this is an important book for people to read because it takes some of the mystery out of the physical aspect of death. I don't think it is a book for everyone, because depending on circumstance, I doubt all readers could remain distanced enough to get through the detailed descriptions in most of the chapters. Verdict: Stiff is best read in small doses, interspersed with Calvin and Hobbes or some Peanuts.