Terry's Reviews > Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Stiff by Mary Roach
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's review
Feb 18, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: science
Read in February, 2011

Mary Roach is the scion of what I've taken to see as a modern move of "curiosity science" whereby an author investigates a concept with the tools of a reporter and produces something utterly digestible. Stiff fits nicely into here as the author picks away at what can happen to a human cadaver. Stiff is a mix of memoir, journal, and technical manual that is intimate, dispassionate, and humorous at almost all the right times.

What I liked: The prose is luxurious and kind to the mind. It's easy to hop in and out of sections and the book can be picked up and put down gracefully. The author makes the effort to remind you who recurring people are and re-defines terms if they've not been used for a bit. The author acts kind of as an everyman stand in when gauging the responses and thoughts of professionals who deal with human remains in their manifold forms and her reactions are reasonable and never self-righteous.

What I didn't like: I think the author waffled on dealing with issues like Chinese traditional medicine and the existence of the soul. Despite being a pretty solid science writer, I feel these topics were handled with a little too much deference and a little too much courtesy. Some beliefs and actions are patently ridiculous through the lens of modernity. Antiquity had its excuses, we do not.

The closest she comes to a conclusion is well reasoned and insightful, that part of dealing with death is divorcing ourselves from our bodies and stating that one doesn't have the right to tell one's descendants what to do with one's remains. On reflection, I think she's entirely right. I hope I have the ability to say "it's up to you".

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