A Hilarious Study of the Science of Death: Stiff, by Mary Roach
What happens to us after we die? Not in the context of an afterlife or lack thereof, but really, physically – what happens to our bodies? It’s this question that is at the core of Mary Roach’s book Stiff.
Roach’s study begins as she arrives to observe a seminar on anatomy. This seminar is like none that you or I have attended, however. This one has as its focus forty human heads, freshly lopped from their lifeless bodies, perched in what Roach refers to as roasting pans, awaiting the prodding hands of the surgeons registered for the session. Thankfully, Roach wastes no time in injecting humor into her telling of the scenario, and while she does nothing to sugarcoat the often grisly details of what she witnesses, it’s somehow easier to, er, stomach the task at hand.
Roach’s research takes us well beyond the safe confines of a research laboratory. We find ourselves by Roach’s side as she embarks on a guided tour through a forested grove in Knoxville, Tennessee, that brings new meaning to the phrase “field research.” At this medical facility, cadavers have been donated to the study of forensics, each brought out to the fenced-in woods to decay under the watchful eyes of the researchers, who document in detail what each passing minute does to the body, from the initial drop in temperature (1.5 degrees per hour until the body reaches the temperature of the air around them) straight through to self-digestion, bloat, and, yes, liquefaction and putrefaction. (It was somewhere in the pages of this particular chapter that I decided beyond a shadow of a doubt that, for me, cremation is the way to go. Ashes to ashes sounds way better than ashes to muck.)
Roach takes the reader in detail through the various ways people die – car accident, plane crash, gunshots, bombs, and even crucifixion – and what these exit paths physically do to the body. Sound morbid? It is. And it’s also incredibly fascinating. Without Roach’s deadpan humor and interwoven history lessons, Stiff would feel a bit like (really, really) gross voyeurism. But in her unique style of story-telling, her lessons become an incredibly captivating scientific narrative. You want to turn away, but you can’t. And as my beach companions were loath to learn one sunny summer day, you also can’t help spouting out random facts from the book. Finally, Roach wraps up Stiff with a word on various personal postmortem options, as well as her own opinion of donating one’s body to medical science and the reasons behind the shortage of, ah, fresh skeletons.
So if you’ve ever entertained a certain morbid curiosity about cadavers – or if you’re only beginning to entertain that curiosity now – Stiff is for you. It’s not for the faint of heart, mind you, as Roach spares no detail in her descriptions of the various effects that death, and how that death occurs, has on a body. But if you’ve got the stomach for it, it’s wildly informative, enlightening, and most unexpectedly, entertaining.