I love Mary Roach and this book was fascinating, but I think it might have been just a little bit too morbid for me.
As I noted in my review of Bonk, Mary Roach is a curious lady. She seems to think it her life’s mission* to pick areas of interest and then dive into them in ways that most people either haven’t thought of, or have thought of but were too embarrassed to ask about. Stiff was her first book (before that she was a freelance writer, mostly doing humorous yet educational pieces for Reader’s Digest, Vogue, GQ, Discover, and The New York Times Magazine), but somehow I ended up reading the Mary Roach body of work backwards, and this is actually the last one I’ve read, even though it was first published. In case you care (you don’t), I like the ones about sex and space the best, but that’s probably because I like reading about sex and space. One of the great things about Roach’s writing is that it’s remarkably consistent, and her same curious and irreverent (but always respectful) manner can be applied to all manner of topics — you always know what you’ll be getting into when you pick up one of her books. And who the heck knows what she’s going to write about next.
*Either that, or she’s making a shit ton of money off of doing that exact thing over and over, so why not just keeping do it? Mary Roach’s publishers say, “More please!”
In Stiff, Roach examines the many things that happen to our bodies after we die, but her main avenue of inquiry is what happens to bodies people have “donated to science.” As you’ll find out if you read the book (or the next couple of sentences that I’m about to type), donating your body “to science” could mean any number of things. She writes about surgeons practicing techniques on severed heads, cadavers being preserved for eternity as art exhibits*, bodies being used as crash-test dummies to make cars safer for those of us who are still living, and the use of cadavers in weapons and ballistics research. There’s even a whole chapter about gravedigging, which was the main way that doctors/researchers obtained human remains to study way back in the day. One of the things Roach is careful to note is that when you donate your body to science, you have no choice over where you will end up. I might consider donating my body to science if I could guarantee I’d end up as a skeleton in a classroom, or as an exhibit at Bodyworlds, but there’s no way I’m getting my head chopped off so plastic surgeons can mess around with my face muscles. NO THANK YOU.
Even though it was really interesting, for most of the book I found myself slightly sick to my stomach, and kind of appalled at what physically happens to us after we die. The last chapter made me feel slightly better — Roach goes into detail about a Swedish (or was she Belgian? I can’t remember) scientist who is pioneering composting as a means of burial. If this is a thing ever I want it to happen to me (not as creepy as it sounds — they don’t just bury you and let you naturally turn into fertilizer — there’s this thing they do to halt the natural decaying process and then you just kind of gradually merge with the dirt without so much as making one little stink). I used to joke that I wanted to be encased in honey in a glass tomb and then lowered to the bottom of a very clear lake, but I think this composting thing might be a more realistic option. Instead of getting all moldy in a grave or burnt to a creepy crisp, I can grow my very own dead Ashley tree!
Anyways, check this Mary Roach shit out, ya’ll. Especially Packing for Mars, because there is a whole chapter about pooping in space!