Book Club, Nonfiction, STEM

Stiff by Mary Roach

The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Originally a selection for my old book club, the Modern Readers, which alas, no longer exists. I started it back in October of 2016 for said club and just recently got around to finishing it.


From the back cover:
Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers – some willingly, some unwittingly – have been involved in science’s boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. In this fascinating account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.

Click on this graphic to explore the book page on LibraryThing!


I’ve been reading a lot of books about death it seems, or it’s just that I’ve had a change of heart and attitude in my approach to death, who knows. I’m not entirely sure. But after going through nine months of all consuming and overwhelming grief after the death of my grandmother, I realized I needed to change my thinking or I would never be a fully functional adult again.

When I first began reading Stiff almost three years ago, I didn’t really want to be reading it. It was a book club book that sounded fun, and was enjoyed by many of my coworkers, but it was about death. My grandfather has recently passed away, and I just wasn’t ready to think critically about death and dead bodies – avoidance was my thing. I swore by it. But after reading From Here to Eternity (for my new book club) and Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? (out in September), both by Caitlin Doughty, I decided to revisit the book that started my “dead body reading” as my coworkers have begun to refer to this recent change in my reading habits.

As with Mary’s other books that I’ve read, I found her curiosity far outstrips my own on any subject, so this time around I decided to make Stiff be my bedtime audiobook for two reasons, a, I would only listen to it in half-hour bursts before bed, and b, to prove to myself that I could listen to a book about dead bodies without having nightmares afterwards. And I survived each night’s sleep without waking up in a cold sweat! While Mary does go into some occasional graphic detail, the intriguing ways corpses are used for science, medical research, and other purposes are absolutely fascinating.

Over time I’ve come to separate grief and death, and have learned, thankfully, that they’re actually two very different things – a corpse no longer contains the person we loved and cared about – it is a vessel, a formerly living organic compound whose study helps heal and care for those who are still among the living. Arriving at this distinction has done wonders for my mental health in the past few months. So if you are a person squeamish about dead bodies as I was (I nearly lost my cookies at a Bodies exhibit), then I highly recommend reading Stiff – it’s a great exploration of our bodies after death and greatly helps de-stigmatize talking about death and corpses.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Click this image to visit the book page on my Bookshop page!

5 thoughts on “Stiff by Mary Roach”

  1. I’m glad to hear you think this is a good one for people who are squeamish about bodies, it’s part of why I’ve avoided this book and similar for a long time. I couldn’t go anywhere near the Bodies exhibit even though my mom tried to drag me to it! You make me think I need to give this one a try.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. While I enjoyed Stiff, Bill Bryson’s next book is called The Body (out in October) and I enjoyed it more. I think because the focus is the living body, which makes for a different type of book, and I find I’m more interested in how our bodies work, so I think it was also a better fit for me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re the second person to tell me his new book is really good. I like him but I guess I’m not as enthusiastic about him as a lot of readers are so I wasn’t planning on reading that one. But I’m the same as you, more interested in how they work, so that does sound appealing. I’m reconsidering! And looking forward to your review of it!


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