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on 26 August 2017
An entertaining and quirky read about what can and does happen to your body after death should you decide to leave it to medical science.
There are a plethora of weird and wonderful things your body can be used for, not just a lot of students standing round a table looking at you in all your naked glory! It is incredible, you could be used to see how long a body takes to decompose in various situations, what happens to a body during high speed car crashes, what effect insects have on your decomposing self, different ways of disposing of the body after death! And many many more zany and useful experiments that can be done to help advance medical knowledge in all aspects of the body alive or dead!
Absolutely fascinating and done with humour and respect.
Quite an eye opener, but I have to say I am not considering leaving MY body to medical science, just yet!
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on 2 November 2016
Things I took away from this book:
(1) It's fascinating and often (more often than not in fact) quite funny, but it's also divisive, there'll be many readers who will have opposing views on the material it contains; no bad thing because it should open conversations and discussions about subjects that are little talked about.
(2) I want to leave my body to science if possible (and if required).
(3) I want as ecological an ending to my remains as possible if (2) isn't possible.
(4) Mary Roach must have had an absolute ball researching it, travelling to exotic (and not so exotic) places around the world and chatting with some wonderful characters from various fields of medical, scientific, military, and other careers related to the topic.
This brilliant book should be required reading on the curriculum at all high schools, colleges and universities to alleviate the discomfort many people have around discussing the end of life.
There should be TV documentary series made from it and educational DVDs released about it, it's that good, it dispels a lot of myths around many practices from the past and explains the laws and restraints that govern the use of the dead in modern times.
On top of all of that, it exposes the reader to cultural anomalies with regard to life and death, from Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the USA.
It isn't exhaustive but it is in depth, it's extremely well written and brings some levity to an otherwise 'grave' topic.
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VINE VOICEon 27 April 2015
This book was recommended in a magazine and sounded fascinating. I find the process of death very interesting, with a body changing from being a person to a cadaver in a brief moment.
I am not squeamish at all - a statement which was proven as I read about the purification of bodies while eating my porridge one morning!
The author, Mary Roach, is American and the book was first published in the U.S. The historical and educational defences tend to be American rather than British and I was surprised that I found this to be less engaging than if it has been the other way round. I can't really explain why but I'm fairly certain that this did dull my enjoyment of the book.
One or two of the chapters found me skipping towards the end but there was always something good in the next chapter to pull me back in again.
I did enjoy the chatty style of the author which was irreverent and respectful, at the same time - much the same as those who deal with cadavers on a regular basis. I wonder if she developed this during her research or whether she was like it before?
It's also worth noting that the book was published in 2003. I'm sure there has been lots of changes in the technology since then and I felt that the book could do with an update.
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on 28 November 2016
I'm in a macabre frame of mind and have been reading a lot of this genre.
So far this has been one of the better ones.
It's written by a journalist who has a real interest in what our outer shells can be used for once the mind and spirit have gone on to the next stage.
It's worth a read if your not easily upset and delicate.
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on 2 September 2012
Mary Roach's theme is the use of corpses in scientific research. Their best known use is in medicine, where they are employed both as a teaching aid for students and a source of organs for the living. But they are also used by car engineers in crash tests, by the military to study the effects of weapons (and protective equipment), and by forensic experts investigating crimes and disasters.

Roach's style is not to provide to an academic, library based, review of previous literature. Her style is to go see. The book opens with the author attending a demonstration in which cosmetic surgeons are practising nose jobs on 40 severed heads. Later she jets off to China in a (futile) attempt to verify a story about alleged malpractice in a crematorium, and to Sweden to meet a woman promoting ecological funerals. It's a book with a large carbon footprint.

Her technique is to use jolly, frat boy language to present macabre material (Larf n' Barf, as it's been called). It's not to everyone's taste, although personally I like her sense of humour. The scene in which she asks a stony faced director of a Chinese crematorium whether one of her employees used the buttocks of cadavers to make dumplings is a virtuosic comic performance.

The one area in which I feel she strikes a false note is in relation to experiments on live animals. While I don't see any objection to using dead humans for scientific purposes, using live animals is a different matter. When Roach describes (with evident comic intent) some of the hideous experiments that have been carried out on animals, I felt that she had passed beyond an absence of squeamishness into simple callousness.

But I enjoyed Roach's account of the euphemisms of death. Employees of mortuaries are told to call a dead body a 'decedent', not a stiff, corpse or cadaver. A project using corpses to assess what type of shoes soldiers should wear to avoid getting their feet blown off by landmines was dubbed the 'lower extremity assessment programme'.

Of course, a corpse by any other name would smell as revolting. But some of the linguistic questions she discusses are more than merely verbal. In particular, how should one define death? As Roach points out, when organ donation became a medical possibility (in the 1960s and 70s) it was neccessary to redefine death as 'brain death'. (In effect, organ donation requires a situation in which a person's brain is dead but their organs are still alive.) Otherwise, surgeons removing the living organs from brain dead patients would have been vulnerable to charges of assault or murder.

Also thought provoking was her discussion of the ethical problem raised by the concept of 'informed consent' in giving the body of a family member to science. On the one hand, the idea of 'informed' consent seems to imply that the relatives should be told exactly what will happen to the cadaver. However, this may be needlessly distressing (the relatives might approve of the cadaver being used, but not wish to know the detail).

The final question she raises is the extent to which it is reasonable to seek to control what should happen to one's own body after death, one's funeral arrangements and so on. And how far should the wishes of the dead be respected? Elaborate stipulations as to what should happen after one's death might simply add to the burden imposed on others.

I listened to the recording of Stiff made by Shelly Frasier for Tantor Media in 2003. Frasier reads the book well, but I have two complaints:

(a) she misses out the footnotes (and some of Roach's best jokes are in the footnotes!);

(b) I wish Roach herself had read the book (she has a pleasant voice, and it's always good to hear the author).
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on 28 October 2014
It’s fair to say that ‘Stiff’ will be unsuitable for people of a squeamish disposition or those with an irrational fear of death and the manner in which human cadavers are treated and eventually returned to nature. The author explores amongst other things, dissection (legal and illegal), autopsies, transplantation, crash testing, cannibalism and environmental disposal methods. However for the free-thinking and enlightened individual, this book will be very informative, albeit grisly, macabre and nauseating in parts. Whilst the subject is dealt with in a matter-of-fact manner there is a liberal sprinkling of black humour throughout without appearing to be disrespectful. A well-written book and an easy read which deserves a high rating.
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on 1 April 2017
This is one of the first non fiction books I have read outside of University studies (I study history so this might be a surprising choice of book) but I have to say I was enthralled throughout. While possibly a little out of date now (I am reading this in 2017), this book made me really consider my own approach to death. Incredibly, considering the subject matter, I laughed many times at the wit of the author, and repeatedly exclaimed in astonishment at some of the things I learned. I would thoroughly recommend to anyone who has the slightest interest in the macabre.
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on 2 May 2011
OK, as someone who takes an interest in the 'death industry' in general I didn't find much in here that was new to me but it was still a great read. Not that Mary Roach hasn't done original research of course. I find her writing very accessible and the tone light without becoming irreverant, sensationalist or flippant about a serious subject. A book that de-mystifies dead bodies perhaps can't help but seem a little blunt and insensitive since death is such a taboo subject, I think Mary Roach's approach is about right.
The book doesn't just cover contemporary death, either, there are lots of interesting historical facts. If anything I wished the book was longer and more in-depth - it certainly feels like an introduction to a subject that deserves further investigation. After all, disposal of our remains is something we should all really be considering. It may lack hard-science but that's ok, it's not supposed to be a textbook or a comprehensive guide to all things cadaver.
I've lent this book to friends and they've all said they not only found it informative and thought provoking but also an enjoyable read.
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on 20 December 2014
I have to say this is the best book i have read in ages. It is very well written, extremely interesting and gives a real insight into the subject of what happens to us or at least our bodies when we die. This is not a book written to shock and horrify but to cover a subject that few of us know anything about. Have not quite finished reading it yet but when i do pick it up I find it hard to put down.
I certainly would have no qualms about handing my or my familys bodies over to medical science after reading this book. Would thoroughly recommend this book.
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on 2 October 2009
Many people would shy away on principle from a book that details the uses of cadavers, and the scientific processes that are involved in the decay of the human body following death, either from squeamishness or from an instinctive avoidance of reminders of our own mortality. It is therefore understandable that few books are available, beside the desiccated tomes of dispassionate science, which provide a readable account of such things. Mary Roach's book not only offers this service, but does so in a way that is charmingly amusing, without being either coarse or disrespectful of the deceased. It is clear that the author is a journalist, rather than a scientist, but given that fewer scientists seem to find it easy to write with a light touch than journalists find it to be at least reasonably logical, this book is more than acceptable to the thinking reader. The book is entertaining and sensitive, and offers insights into the way people feel about mortality and about how they deal with it in practice.
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