Order Credentials from Parchment

Saint Catharine College Clock Tower photo

The Curious Life of Human Cadavers.

Unusual book takes deadly serious look at its subject matter


By Jaime H. Bischoff

Patriot Pages  Contributor

STIFF: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers The urge for acceptance is instilled at birth for all of us. This can come by many means but most commonly by following the “social norm.”  There is a complex mixture of beliefs, attitudes and ideas that blend together inside that social norm, making it hard to single out individuals.  But if you slide just outside that circle, you stand out like bold print.  So given all this, why did I find myself so drawn to a subject nearly labeled taboo?  Mary Roach made that transition too easy in her book  STIFF: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers. This book describes the use of the dead human body, both historically and presently, for medical research as documented and perceived by the author. 

The author, in her words, is “a curious person that writes about what she finds fascinating.”  One fascination of hers is the question of what will happen to her body when she dies. Does she want to be traditional and leave her remains to accompany her casket?  Or perhaps she wants her bones to forever be preserved and used for research in a classroom.  This odd curiosity leads her to discover just exactly where human cadavers come from and what their uses are.  Her research appears to be spontaneous as there is no given order of events she writes about. Her experiences range from the use of the cadaver human head, bodies as crash dummies and even history on the research of finding the location of the human soul.

Her descriptive writing has an addictive way of taking readers through the events exactly as they play out and as they happen in her mind.  One would probably think this sort of topic doesn’t sound like a crowd favorite. However, the author’s use of humor and wit to expose the benefits of cadaver use is addicting. She approaches situations and asks the same questions I would (if I had to witness, of course). For example, when she observed students practicing facelifts on cadaver heads it was the way the heads were presented that caught her interest. “I would leave the neck….these heads appear to have been lopped off just below the chin ... I find myself wondering whose handiwork this is.”  Before you know it, you realize you’ve read three chapters and find yourself asking if human decay and gross anatomy is really so very interesting.  But here is the key.  She naturally translates what before you would think of a corpse as a “person,” to now seeing a corpse as just a “cadaver,” a subject of scientific study. And she does this without trying to persuade the reader, just merely stating the obvious and looking from other points of view. 

This was a major selling point for me because in the beginning, just briefly knowing the subject matter, I really questioned the morality and integrity of the idea. I cannot say that I am on one definite side of the fence about all of this, but it did open my eyes to other perspectives. I was pleasantly surprised by  STIFF: The Curious   Life of Human Cadavers.  It is well written, very informative, and most importantly to me, not nearly as offensive as I thought possible. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in gaining a different perspective on cadaver research. It’s an easy read, with added professional value, and should be great for any reader.