Morbid curiosity

Stiff by Mary Roach
As part of the inaugural Virtual Book Tour, I’ve had the opportunity to review a copy of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. I’m about as squeamish as they come—just looking at the organ donor sticker on my license makes me a little uncomfortable—but I’ve always wondered what happens to people when their rent-controlled apartments come available.

Mary satisfies my curiosity with a sense of humor balanced with a reverence for her subject matter. Here’s an example from Chapter 4, “Dead Man Driving”:

By and large, the dead aren’t very talented. They can’t play water polo, or lace up their boots, or maximize market share. They can’t tell a joke, and they can’t dance for beans. There is one thing dead people excel at. They’re very good at handling pain.

For instance, UM 006. UM 006 is a cadaver who recently journeyed across Detroit from the University of Michigan to the bioengineering lab at Wayne State University. His job, which he will undertake at approximately 7 p.m. tonight, is to be hit in the shoulder with a linear impactor.

Cadaver UM 006’s job is a significant one—he and his fellow human crash test dummies provide data about car crashes which simply can’t be matched by mechanical dummies. While the use of cadavers in these types of tests is much less common today than it was in the 1960s, it is estimated that for every cadaver used to test restraints and airbags, 147 lives have been saved.

Mary explores the myriad ways a human body can serve a purpose after its owner has moved on, from forensic science to military research, medical training to the study of airplane crashes. The result is a surprisingly enjoyable read which belies its title.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, published by W.W. Norton, is available for purchase online, and more information is available at

Tomorrow, the Virtual Book Tour travels across the country to

2 Responses to “Morbid curiosity”

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