Stiff (Roach)

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Mary Roach, 2003
W.W. Norton & Company
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780393324822

Outrageously funny, irreverent . . .  (Denver Post)

For 2,000 years, cadavers—some willingly, some unwittingly—have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings.

In this fascinating, ennobling account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and, in so doing, tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—March 20, 1959
Rasied—Etna, New Hampshire, USA
Education—B.A., Weslyan University
Awards—see below
Currently—lives in Oakland, California

Mary Roach is an American author, specializing in popular science. To date, she has published five books: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005) (published in some markets as Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife), Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008), Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2010), and Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (2013).

Roach was raised in Etna, New Hampshire. She received a bachelor's degree in psychology from Wesleyan University in 1981. After college, Roach moved to San Francisco, California and spent a few years working as a freelance copy editor. She worked as a columnist and also worked in public relations for a brief time. Her writing career began while working part-time at the San Francisco Zoological Society, producing press releases on topics such as elephant wart surgery. On her days off from the SFZS, she wrote freelance articles for the San Francisco Chronicle's Sunday Magazine.

From 1996 to 2005 Roach was part of The Grotto, a San Francisco-based project and community of working writers and filmmakers. It was in this community that Roach would get the push she needed to break into book writing. While being interviewed by Alex C. Telander of BookBanter, Roach answers the question of how she got started on her first book:

A few of us every year [from The Grotto] would make predictions for other people, where they'll be in a year. So someone made the prediction that, "Mary will have a book contract." I forgot about it and when October came around I thought, I have three months to pull together a book proposal and have a book contract. This is what literally lit the fire under my butt.

Early career
In 1986, she sold a humor piece about the IRS to the San Francisco Chronicle. That piece led to a number of humorous, first-person essays and feature articles for such publications as Vogue, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, Discover Magazine, National Geographic, Outside Magazine, and Wired. She has also written articles for and tech-gadget reviews for An article by Roach, entitled "The C word: Dead man driving," was published in the Journal of Clinical Anatomy. Roach has had monthly columns in Reader's Digest (“My Planet”) and Sports Illustrated for Women (“The Slightly Wider World of Sports”).

Besides being a best selling author, Roach is involved in many other projects on the side. Roach reviews books for The New York Times and was the guest editor of the Best American Science and Nature Writing's 2011 edition. She also serves as a member of the Mars Institute's Advisory Board and was recently asked to join the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.

Personal life
Roach has an office in downtown Oakland and lives in the Glenview neighborhood of Oakland with her husband Ed Rachles, an illustrator and graphic designer. She also has two step-daughters.

While Roach has often been quoted saying that she does not have much free time between writing books, she is very fond of backpacking and travel. The latter she has been able to do a great deal of while doing research for her articles and books. Roach has visited all seven continents twice. She has been to Antarctica a few times as part of the National Science Foundation's Polar Program. In 1997, she visited Antarctica to write an article for Discover Magazine on meteorite hunting with meteorite hunter Ralph Harvey.

In 1995, Roach's article "How to Win at Germ Warfare" was a National Magazine Award Finalist. In the article, Roach conducts an interview with microbiologist Chuck Gerba of the University of Arizona who describes a scientific study where bacteria and virus particles become aerosolized upon flushing a toilet: "Upon flushing, as many as 28,000 virus particles and 660,000 bacteria [are] jettisoned from the bowl."

In 1996, her article on earthquake-proof, bamboo houses, "The Bamboo Solution", took the American Engineering Societies' Engineering Journalism Award in the general interest magazine category. In this article the reader learns from Jules Janssen, a civil engineer, that bamboo is "stronger than wood, brick, and concrete...A short, straight column of bamboo with a top surface area of 10 square centimeters could support an 11,000-pound elephant."

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers was a New York Times Bestseller, a 2003 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, and one of Entertainment Weekly's Best Books of 2003. Stiff also won the Editor's Choice award in 2003, was voted as a Borders Original Voices book, and was the winner of the Elle Reader's Prize. The book has been translated into 17 languages, including Hungarian (Hullamerev) and Lithuanian (Negyveilai).[6] Stiff was also selected for Washington State University's Common Reading Program in 2008-09.

Roach's column "My Planet" (Reader's Digest) was runner-up in the humor category of the 2005 National Press Club awards. Roach's second book, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, was the recipient of the Elle Reader's Prize in October 2005. Spook was also listed as a New York Times Notable Books pick in 2005, as well as a New York Times Bestseller. In 2008, Roach's book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, was chosen as the New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice, it was in The Boston Globe's Top 5 Science Books, and it was listed as a bestseller in several other publications.

In 2011, Roach's book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, was chosen as the book of the year for the 7th annual One City One Book: San Francisco Reads literary event program. Packing for Mars was also 6th on the New York Times Best Seller list.[22]

In 2012, Roach was the recipient of the Harvard Secular Society's Rushdie Award for her outstanding lifetime achievement in cultural humanism. The same year, she received a Special Citation in Scientific inquiry from Maximum Fun.

The common theme throughout all of Roach's books is a literary treatment of the human body. Roach says of her publication history,

My books are all [about the human body], Spook is a little bit of departure because it's more about the soul rather than the flesh and blood body, but most of my books are about human bodies in unusual circumstances.

When asked by Peter Sagal, of NPR, specifically how she picks her topics, she replied, "Well, its got to have a little science, it's got to have a little history, a little humor—and something gross."

While Roach does not possess a science degree, she attempts to take complex ideas and turn them into something that the average reader can understand. She takes the reader with her through the steps of her research, from learning about the material to getting to know the people who study it, as she described in a public dialog with Adam Savage:

Make no mistake, good science writing is medicine. It is a cure for ignorance and fallacy. Good science writing peels away the blindness, generates wonder, and brings the open palm to the forehead: "Oh! Now I get it!"

Regarding her skepticism about the world around her, Roach states in her book Spook,

Flawed as it is, science remains the most solid god I've got. And so I've decided to turn to it, to see what it had to say on the topic of life after death. Because I know what religion says, and it perplexes me. It doesn't deliver a single, coherent, scientifically sensible or provable scenario… Science seemed the better bet. (Author bio from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
Our own instinctive discomfort with death provides fodder for Roach's dry sense of humor throughout the book .
Ana Marie Cox - Washington Post

It's a rare talent that can make people want to throw up and laugh at the same time.
Roy Rivenberg - Los Angeles Times Book Review

Outrageously funny, irreverent—but delightfully written, this book is difficult to put down.
Brian Richard Boylan - Denver Post

"Uproariously funny" doesn't seem a likely description for a book on cadavers. However, Roach, a Salon and Reader's Digest columnist, has done the nearly impossible and written a book as informative and respectful as it is irreverent and witty. From her opening lines ("The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back"), it is clear that she's taking a unique approach to issues surrounding death. Roach delves into the many productive uses to which cadavers have been put, from medical experimentation to applications in transportation safety research (in a chapter archly called "Dead Man Driving") to work by forensic scientists quantifying rates of decay under a wide array of bizarre circumstances. There are also chapters on cannibalism, including an aside on dumplings allegedly filled with human remains from a Chinese crematorium, methods of disposal (burial, cremation, composting) and "beating-heart" cadavers used in organ transplants. Roach has a fabulous eye and a wonderful voice as she describes such macabre situations as a plastic surgery seminar with doctors practicing face-lifts on decapitated human heads and her trip to China in search of the cannibalistic dumpling makers. Even Roach's digressions and footnotes are captivating, helping to make the book impossible to put down. Agent, Jay Mandel. (Apr.) Forecast: Do we detect a trend to necrophilia? Two years ago it was mummies; in the last few months we have seen an account of the journeys of the corpse of Elmer McCurdy and a defense of undertakers; and now comes Roach's disquisition on cadavers. But death is, after all, a subject that just won't go away.
Publishers Weekly

Roach writes in an insouciant style and displays her metier in tangents about bizarre incidents in pathological history. Death may have the last laugh, but, in the meantime, Roach finds merriment in the macabre. —Gilbert Taylor

Despite the irreverent, macabre title, this is a respectful and serious examination of what happens to cadavers, past and present. Salon columnist Roach explains how surgeons and doctors use cadavers donated for research purposes to help the living, and also examines potential new variations on how we bury the dead. She explores some interesting historical side avenues as well: the use of corpses to test the guillotine, earlier anatomical beliefs, grave robbers, the elixirs various civilizations concocted out of corpses for medicinal purposes, and, most important, how cadavers provided valuable information to us for understanding such plane crashes as TWA Flight 800. Roach also addresses philosophical issues. —Michael D. Cramer, Schwarz BioSciences, RTP, NC
Library Journal

Fascinating, unexpectedly fresh and funny look at the multiplicity of ways in which cadavers benefit the living. Author of the "My Planet" column in Reader s Digest and a regular contributor to s "Health and Body" section, Roach displays here a knack for persuading morticians, scientists, engineers, and others whose work involves corpses to let her watch them at their labors. From the opening chapter, in which 40 severed human heads are prepped for a plastic-surgery seminar, to the final one, in which whole bodies are plastinated with liquid polymers for a museum exhibit, she proves herself a keen observer and unflagging questioner. Roach watches an embalming at a college for morticians and visits a university study of human decomposition. She shows the value of cadavers in car-crash testing, in weapons research by the US Army, in investigations into airline disasters, in studies of the crucifixion and the guillotine. Not only do dead bodies provide organ transplants for fellow humans but they may, Roach reports, soon be transformed into compost--at least in ecologically aware Sweden. As for other exotic uses, a chapter subtitled "Medical Cannibalism and the Case of the Human Dumplings" tells it all. While Roach provides a vivid picture of the macabre activities she witnesses, it s her offbeat musings, admissions, and reactions that give such life to her tales of the dead. She also provides history, mostly focusing on body-snatchers and the anatomists who used their services. Roach delights in imparting odd information, such as the fact that 18th-century students at certain Scottish medical schools could pay their tuition in corpses rather than cash, and when the curious factsunearthed by her research don t fit neatly into her narrative, she slips them into droll footnotes. Informative, yes; entertaining, absolutely.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions

1. In her introduction to Stiff, Mary Roach remarks that "death makes us helplessly polite." Why is it that we're compelled to use polite language when discussing death? Why are we often afraid to discuss it in the way Roach has done here?

2. Roach discovered that students in anatomy classes tend not to enjoy touching and smelling cadavers, even though they relish the opportunity to study them. Does this surprise you? Why might someone want to work with cadavers?

3. Could one remain more psychologically and emotionally balanced in their dealings with cadavers by humanizing them, as Roach frequently does, or by objectifying them? Explain.

4. Roach describes the smell of a decomposing human: "It is dense and cloying, sweet but not flower-sweet. Halfway between rotting fruit and rotting meat." But modern embalming methods allow us to present odorless, good-looking corpses at funerals. Has modern mortuary science made death more aesthetically pleasing?

5. Dennis Shanahan, who investigated the grisly human wreckage of downed TWA Flight 800, told Roach that the hardest thing about examining Flight 800 was that most of the bodies were relatively whole. He said, "Intactness bothers me much more than the lack of it." Why might he feel this way? Do you agree or disagree?

6. Many research studies that make use of cadavers raise questions about maintaining the dignity of the deceased. For example, a ballistics study might involve decapitating a cadaver or shooting one in the face—all for the sake of gathering data to ensure that innocent civilians who are hit in the face with nonlethal bullets won't suffer disfiguring fractures. Do you think that the humanitarian benefits of experimenting on cadavers can outweigh any potential breach of respect for the dead? Why or why not?

7. The heart, cut from the chest, can keep beating on its own for as long as a minute or two. This, Roach says, reflects centuries of confusion over how exactly to define death. Have modern scientific experiments on cadavers helped us to pinpoint the precise moment when life ceases to exist and all that's left is a corpse? Explain.

8. Roach says, "On a rational level, most people are comfortable with the concept of brain death and organ donation. But on an emotional level, they may have a harder time accepting it." Some organ recipients even worry that they will take on certain characteristics of their donors. What might this say about how we link the physical human body to the human soul?

9. In Chapter 10, Roach takes us on a grand tour of cannibalism across cultures. She's compelled by the idea that economics accounts for why people throughout history have never dined regularly on each other. Humans, she says, turn out to be lousy livestock, because you have to give them more food to feed them than you'd gain in the end by eating them. How do you react to this idea?

10. In Chapter 11, Roach journeys to an island in Sweden, where a forty-seven-year-old biologist-entrepreneur has made a business of producing compost from cadavers. This business has major corporate backing and an international patent, and mortuary professionals in many countries, including the United States, are interested in representing the new technology. Do you think that the "human compost movement" could gain traction where you live?

11. Roach concludes that "it makes little sense to try to control what happens to your remains when you are no longer around to reap the joys or benefits of that control." Do you agree with her?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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