Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Ever wonder how car manufacturers develop life-saving technologies such as air bags and seatbelts, or how the latest surgical methods are tested?

Or how doctors came to learn about the workings of the human body and how to go about saving lives?

You may or may not have heard, but a lot of innovations in the field of medicine, forensics, technology, and even ballistics and weaponry, have been brought about with the help of human cadavers.

In her non-fiction novel, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach takes a light, funny approach in educating the world about the importance of human cadavers and their tremendous contributions to science and technology.

Human cadavers have played an important role in the field of medicine.  We take for granted many of the medical procedures we undergo today – procedures that, a hundred years ago would not have been possible, or could not have been done with positive results for the patients.  Human cadavers have been used to learn about blood circulation, the different functions of organs, and how to alleviate different ailments by surgery.  By experimenting on human cadavers, doctors are now able to safely perform blood transfusions, and surgeries, not only to patch up ailing organs, but also to transplant organs from donors.  Cadavers have also aided cosmetic surgeons in honing their skills in facial and cosmetic surgery.

Human cadavers have contributed hugely to science, research and development.  Automotive companies have used human cadavers to improve safety by way of seatbelts and airbags; ballistic research has been done on human cadavers with the hope of someday creating non-lethal bullets and weapons, as well as in creating safer shoes, gear, and clothing.

In a vacant lot at the University of Tennessee, human cadavers are also contributing to the study of forensics.  Roach mentions the “body farm” at the University of Tennessee, wherein anthropology students position human cadavers in their outdoor “lab” to study the effects of the environment on decomposition.  By studying the different forces at work after a person dies, forensic scientists are able to determine time, and possible cause of death, as well as to identify unrecognizable faces and bodies due to decomposition.

By studying human cadavers of  a wreckage, scientists can also recreate and piece together plane crashes, to determine cause, as well as to develop better airplanes and safety precautions.

To some extent, people have come to expect, and accept, that human cadavers are being used in the field of medicine and science.  However, in her book, Mary Roach also includes the not-so-usual, and bizarre ways in which human cadavers have been (or are being) used.

Mary Roach also provides a historical account of the uses of human cadavers in experiments, and the proliferation of body snatching or digging up of cadavers in graveyards.  In the past, human cadavers have been experimented on to determine whether or not guillotine victims, or decapitated heads were still “alive” and conscious after being detached from their bodies.  This brought about bizarre experiments in whole head transplants (in animals only).

In a very interesting, albeit, somewhat disgusting, chapter, Roach shares her research on instances of human cannibalism, and the use of human body parts and excretions as medicine, throughout history, and in different parts of the world.

Another chapter is devoted to burial methods and other options of “corpse disposal” – from the usual, being buried whole, in a coffin, underground, to the popular alternative of being cremated.  I was surprised to learn that there have been recent developments in burial and “disposal” methods.

These days, people can choose more ecological, environment-friendly ways of being “disposed of.”  There is a process called “resomation,” wherein alkaline hydrolysis is used to break down the body, leaving only a dry, brittle skeleton, which can be pulverized and placed in an urn, at the end of the process.  And in Sweden, there is also a method wherein you can choose to be composted, to be used later as fertilizer to plant a tree, as a living memorial.

Another option, of course, is to donate your organs to save lives, or to donate your body to science, to be experimented on in any way they see fit (unfortunately, you cannot choose how your body will be used, once you have donated it to science).

Stiff is a very interesting and informative book on the importance of people once they cease to be “people.”  By using a light, informal, humorous approach, Mary Roach is able to talk about a topic which would otherwise be considered morbid, taboo, and even grotesque.

I recommend this book to anyone to is interested in the human body, to anyone looking for alternatives to traditional burial options (I personally like the idea of being composted to be used to plant a tree), or for anyone looking for ways to be useful, even after they stop breathing.


Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003) – Mary Roach

Non-fiction; W.W. Norton and Company; 303 pages.

Personal rating:  3.5/5

7 thoughts on “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

  1. This sounds interesting. I used to work in a medical school and at the end of each year, the students would have a ceremony to honor and thank the cadavers and family members. It was always a moving event.

    • Oh, yeah, the author mentioned that in the book. She said some universities or medical hospitals actually did that and the students would do different things to honor the anonymous bodies. Some would read poetry, some would sing songs, just little things to show their appreciation.

      She also said it was a very solemn but moving ceremony.

  2. I read that book for AP English and it’s amazing I loved it. Stiff is funny and really informative, Roach also has a lot of experiences that she shares with her audience.

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