Stiff, by Mary Roach

(Note: In a bit of a departure from the norm, today we’re looking at nonfiction.)

Ever wondered what happens when you die? Well, this book has all the answers (Oh, except for life-after-death type stuff. No idea what happens there.). This book is all about what happens to a body when its owner has shuffled off this mortal coil, no matter what they choose to have done to the empty husks they leave behind.

The primary focus of Stiff is cadaver research–in other words, what happens to bodies when they get donated to science. And let me tell you, it’s absolutely fascinating. It’s also (rather surprisingly, considering the subject matter) not even remotely ghoulish, morbid, or distasteful.

It’s a fairly good, detailed overview of what, exactly, will happen to a donated cadaver. Science depends¬†so much on cadaver research. Medical students need hands-on training in anatomy; entomologists need to know insect life-cycle timelines to help in criminal investigations; researchers need to be able to test vehicle safety and land mine protection gear. Without cadaver donations, there’d be no airbags, no body farm, and surgery would be done by people who have no idea of what the inside of a human body actually looks like.

But it isn’t only about the research. Organ donation is discussed. It also covers the history of embalming and the desire to slow–or even stop–decay. The book also explores other options, from cremation and interment to less common practices, and what those processes actually mean.

Somehow Mary Roach has found a way to take a significant societal taboo and turn it into an informative, irreverent, and highly entertaining read. She makes the lives of the dead both touching and funny; never once crossing the line into disrespect or crudeness.

So if you’ve ever thought about donating your body to science or wondered what it involved, or debated the merits of cremation vs. burial, read Stiff. It just might change your view of death.

Favorite Line:

And that if there’s any danger, which I like to think there isn’t, we’re all doomed, so relax and have another Snickers.

Don’t read if: you hate bodies, researchers, gelatin, or spoilers.