Excerpt from Stiff by Mary Roach, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

by Mary Roach

Stiff by Mary Roach X
Stiff by Mary Roach
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2003, 224 pages
    May 2004, 304 pages

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What I found hardest to get used to this past year was not the bodies I saw, but the reactions of people who asked me to tell them about my book. People want to be excited for you when they hear you are writing a book; they want to have something nice to say. A book about dead bodies is a conversational curve ball. It's all well and good to write an article about corpses, but a 200-page book plants a red flag on your character. We knew Mary was quirky, but now we're wondering if she's, you know, okay. I experienced a moment last summer, at the check-out desk at the medical school library at the University of California, San Francisco, that sums up what it is like to write a book about cadavers. A young man was looking at the computer record of the books under my name: The Principles and Practice of Embalming, The Chemistry of Death, Gunshot Injuries. He looked at the book I now wished to check out: Proceedings of The 9th Stapp Car Crash Conference. He didn't say anything, but he didn't need to. It was all there in his glance. Often, when I checked out a book, I expected to be questioned. Why do you want this book? What are you up to? What kind of person are you?

They never asked, so I never told them. But I'll tell you now. I'm a curious person. Like all journalists, I'm a voyeur. I write about what I find fascinating. I used to write about travel. I traveled to escape the known and the ordinary. The longer I did this, the further afield I had to go. By the time I found myself in Antarctica for the third time, I began to search closer at hand. I began to look for the foreign lands between the cracks. Science was one such land. Science involving the dead was particularly foreign and strange and, in its repellent way, enticing. The places I traveled to this past year were not as beautiful as Antarctica, but they were as strange and interesting and, I hope, as worthwhile sharing.

From the chapter "Eat Me," about medicinal cannibalism:

In the grand bazaars of twelfth-century Arabia, it was occasionally possible, if you knew where to look and you had a lot of cash and a tote bag you didn't care about, to procure an item known as mellified man. The verb "to mellify" comes from the Latin for honey, mel. Mellified man was dead human remains steeped in honey. Its other name was "human mummy confection," though this is misleading, for, unlike other honey-steeped Middle Eastern confections, this one did not get served for dessert. One administered it topically and, I am sorry to say, orally as medicine.

From the chapter "Life After Death," about forensics and embalming:

Out behind the University of Tennessee Medical center is a lovely, forested grove with squirrels leaping in the branches of hickory trees and birds calling and patches of green grass where people lie on their backs in the sun, or sometimes in the shade, depending on where the researchers put them.

This pleasant Knoxville hillside is a field research facility, the only one in the world dedicated to the study of human decay. The people lying in the sun are dead.


An eye cap is a simple ten-cent piece of plastic. It is slightly larger than a contact lens, less flexible, and considerably less comfortable. The plastic is repeatedly lanced through, so that small, sharp spurs stick up from its surface. The spurs work on the same principle as those steel spikes that threaten Severe Tire Damage on behalf of rental car companies: The eyelid will come down over an eye cap, but, once closed, will not easily open back up. Eye caps were invented by a mortician to help dead people keep their eyes shut.

There have been times this morning when I wished that someone had outfitted me with a pair of eye caps. I've been standing around, eyelids up, in the basement embalming room of the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science.

From Stiff by Mary Roach. Copyright 2003 Mary Roach, all rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher W.W. Norton, or the author.

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