Summer is finally upon us and now is the time that even those of us thoroughly ensconced in books of gore are looking for something light and entertaining to sip our cold cocktails with. For this I turned to an unlikely New York Times Bestseller of 2004. If the title alone hadn’t been enough to grab me, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, the chapter headings would have. (A Head is a Terrible Thing to Waste, Dead Man Driving, Eat Me… ) What sealed the deal though was Mary Roach’s immediately humorous tone. She introduces the condition of being dead as a state comparable to being on a cruise ship, “Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.” I particularly enjoy her internal dialogue as counterpart to considerable scientific research. While talking with the anatomy lab manager that prepared the pieces of cadavers used in a seminar for plastic surgeons, all she could think was one single repeated line, “You cut off heads. You cut off heads. You cut off heads.”!
Stiff explores the burning morbid questions that I’m sure all of us have asked after a few drinks and repeat viewings of se7en and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life: Is it actually possible to eat yourself to death? (Yes, methodically tested on dead guys, check.) And decapitation, is it really the end? If we can transplant organs couldn’t we transplant a whole head? (Roach talked to the neurosurgeon responsible for “successfully” connecting the head of one decapitated monkey to the body of another in 1971. He’s waiting for the first volunteer human donor to, ah, pop their head in…)
Ultimately, Stiff takes us on a fascinating tour of many human bodies’ after-lives. From main courses in cannibalism to crash test dummies to helping decipher the crucifixion…there’s really something for everyone! While I read it cover to cover, this volume works just as well with cherry picking the chapters that suit your needs. There’s “How Do You Know You’re Dead?” for a rainy day at the cottage. Have intrusive neighbours on the plane heading to your beach vacation? No problem, wave the cover of Stiff around and open to the chapter, “Beyond the Black Box – When the bodies of the passengers must tell the story of the crash.” You’re almost guaranteed to keep the guy in the next seat quiet. Nervous, but quiet!