Stiff by Mary Roach is a surprisingly hilarious and comprehensive look at what all happens to bodies after a person dies. Specific topics include various scientific uses for cadavers, organ donation, and less useful ways people enjoying having their corpses preserved or disposed of. It had vast potential to be crude, callous, inane or pandering, but Stiff is none of those things. Roach did a great job with inherently strange subject matter!
Although I understand Roach engaged in substantial background research before embarking upon this project, the book is mainly centered around interviews. She interviews people learning to do medical procedures on corpses, scientists who try to understand plane crashes and other disasters through analyzing the human remains involved, and other people involved in body businesses.
The book is a little tendentious, which would bother me if I didn't agree with Roach on the benefits of organ/body donation and cremation relative to burial. I have trouble imagining someone who is all about intact burial and the dignity of cadavers and all that getting really excited about this book, but I would be the first to admit I don't really understand that viewpoint in general.
My main problems with this book were the specific images I will never be able to scour from my brain. To some extent I knew what I was in for, this obviously being a book about corpses, but bleh. I am super squeamish and actually got light-headed in certain sections! I have two phobias: wormy things and things touching my bellybutton. I can't really hold the inclusion of a bit about wormy things IN bellybuttons against Roach, since it's a personal problem of mine and it is sort of weird!
The part I really didn't like at all, and sort of wish I hadn't read, was Roach's tangential section on head transplants. It had little to do with human corpses, and a lot to do with sadistic experiments on LIVE animals (like puppies, *sob*) that would not be expected to yield anything medically useful. I am seriously going to have nightmares for a long time about what Russian "scientists" do/did to dogs and what Americans are doing to monkeys. I have gradually come to accept that some animal experimentation is necessary for medical progress, but I would expect people to work to minimize suffering and maximize results that could be applied to save lives. I feel like these "experiments" must have been designed specifically to maximize the suffering of the tortured animals while yielding no results that could be used for fields of study other than torture. Sorry about the tangent, I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if this portion wasn't included.
Despite the can't unsee sections, I did really enjoy this book. Roach is a really remarkably funny writer and has the ability to inject humor in unexpected places without diminishing the point. She got really great interviews and attacked the strange subject matter with admirable abandon. Any book she writes has a place on my to-read list!