BOOK REVIEW: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

As others have pointed out, Stiff is probably the funniest book you’re likely to read on the subject of death and decay, and don’t be surprised if you’re rewriting your will after you read it.

Most of the humor comes in Roach’s copious quips and gags, but a couple are unintentional. For example, we read of a medical school anatomy lab funeral (yes, they have them), in which a student sings Green Day’s “Time of Your Life.” The title of this overplayed and rather annoying song is actually “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).

Stiff convinces its readers the indispensable nature of human cadavers in medical research and training. It also personally brought home for me the need for animal protection advocates to seriously consider donating our remains to science in order to both help people and spare living animals.

Although I doubt this was the author’s intent, the author gives countless examples of the ways in which very dead humans can replace very much alive animals. We learn, for example, that while cadavers are the ideal model for tracheal intubations and catheterizations, some schools still use live dogs (and kittens). To research the impact of explosives, animals have, once again, been used as targets over human cadavers. Roach discussed explosives research on living animals ranging from stump-tailed macaque monkeys to burros. We also learn that

There is one type of automotive impact study in which animals are still used even though cadavers would be vastly more accurate, and that is the pediatric impact study. No child donates his remains to science, and no researcher wants to bring up body donation with grieving parents, even though the need for data on children and air-bag injuries has been obvious and dire.

Stiff isn’t just a book about human cadavers; there is also quite a bit of information on the subject of animal experimentation. Being like us, it seems, is something no animal wishes to be—as it often means they will become the subjects of invasive research. Among the unfortunates used: pigs because their hearts and organs are so similar to ours; brown bears in studies of the human knee; and emus, crippled in hip research because of their similarity to those of people.

Animals are also catch-alls for military and weapons research into how better to main and kill human beings. Live pigs and goats are shot in munitions studies in the US and Europe. In China, they shoot dogs, in Australia, rabbits. One really wonders how much researchers could possibly extrapolate from a rabbit being hit by a bullet or grenade.

Especially offensive research experiments give us a peek into just how far some investigators are willing to go. For example, we have an example of research into the possibility of an eternal soul—a man measuring dying patients found a slight drop in weight after death, confirming (to him) that this was the result of the soul leaving the body. Next, he poisoned to death 15 dogs whose weight did not drop as significantly, so the researcher took this to affirm that animals don’t have souls. (Or maybe vivsectors don’t have them.)

Roach interviews Robert White, who is infamous for his studies involving decapitating monkeys and transplanting their heads. As one might imagine, the experiments weren’t terribly successful:

The monkeys lived anywhere from six hours to three days, most of them dying from rejection issues or from bleeding.

Roach describes one of White’s early experiments, in which he sewed the living brain of one monkey into another’s entrails. Although Roach normally reports on the vivisection experiments without comment or attempts to make little jokes, at this point she did question the ethics of such a bizarre endeavor:

What must that have been like? What could possibly be the purpose, the justification? Had White been thinking of one day isolating a human brain like this? What kind of person comes up with a plan like this and carries it out?

Some might not like the fact that Roach included so much material on animal experimentation, but I saw it as a good thing. Stiff was a critically-hailed, New York Times bestseller. I think it’s safe to say most of those readers would have never picked up a book about vivisection. Roach gives everyday insight into the real world of animal experiments, and it’s not exactly like the National Institutes of Health’s poster, “Let’s Visit a Research Laboratory!”

Most of us aren’t the medical students and crematorium workers the author visits. Of course, the daily interaction most of us have with dead bodies is on our dinner plates. Roach correctly points out that

The problem with cadavers is that they look so much like people. It’s the reason most of us prefer a pork chop to a slice of whole suckling pig. It’s the reason we say “pork” and “beef” instead of “pig” and “cow.” Dissection and surgical instruction, like meat-eating, require a carefully maintained set of illusions and denial.

She later adds:

A cow carcass is upsetting; a brisket is dinner.

She also uses an example of one horror to point out our collusion in other horrors:

Sandy once told me about a famous Chinese recipe called Scream Three Times, in which newborn mice are taken from their mothers, (the first scream), dropped in a hot fry pot (second scream), and eaten (third scream). Then again, we drop live lobsters into boiling water and rid our homes of mice by gluing down their feet and letting them starve, so let us not rush to cast the first stone.

However, lest one surmise that Roach is forward-thinking about the killing of animals for food, she pulls out this eye-roller:

[When researching reports of human consumption of a cadaver in rural China] I’m with the Chinese. The fact that Americans love dogs doesn’t make it immoral for the Chinese of Peixian city, who apparently don’t love dogs, to wrap dog meat in pita bread and eat it for breakfast, just as the Hindu’s reverence for cows doesn’t make it wrong for us to make them into belts and meatloaf.

Obviously, the big difference here is Roach was referring to the scavenging of humans who have died of natural causes, not killed to provide something to snack on—one would assume that the author would have an objection were humans to be slaughtered against their will in the way of the dogs and cows. I do, however, agree that killing for mere gustatory pleasure is no different if the victim is a dog or a cow—but I believe they are both equally wrong.

And speaking of cannibalism:

[Anthropologist Stanley Garn] estimates that humans have more or less the same body composition as veal. … Was it true of human flesh, as of beef, that a cut with more fat is considered more flavorful? Yup, said Garn. And, as with livestock, the better nourished the individuals, the higher the protein content.

Ok, guys, get it? We’re ALL made of meat. If you wouldn’t want to be eaten, don’t eat somebody else.

P.S. Be an organ donor and leave your cadaver to science. You won’t need it.

(review originally appeared at


1 Comment (+add yours?)

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