Ever wonder what happens to your mortal remains after your spirit has taken the celestial elevator? Journalist and author Mary Roach ( offers us this informative and humorous study of the human corpse. Human beings continue to die with alarming frequency: about 6,350 every hour at the last estimate ( That’s an awful lot of solid waste to dispose of. So what happens to the stuff? This book sets out the many and varied answers. Stiff:  The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003) contains the gruesome full monty on burial, incineration and all other forms of corpse disposal – including a Swedish environmentalist who has perfected a technique for freeze-drying her neighbours and recycling the shredded product as compost. But the real interest lies in the chapters concerned with the increasing number of people who voluntarily agree to donate their bodies for medical and research purposes. For a variety of reasons, most donors don’t stipulate precisely which purposes they have in mind, but probably few imagine that they might end up lying out in the open air in a state of advanced decomposition so that criminal forensics researchers can advance the state of that branch of science. They note at what stage maggots start eating the subcutaneous fat and the cadaver emits a fart as the intestinal gas produced by bacteria feeding on the enzyme-ravaged cells of the intestinal lining is expelled – the “bloat stage” – all preceding the final collapse and liquefaction. Interestingly, the brain is one of the first organs to dissolve, being located conveniently close to four of the major apertures of the body, as well as being soft and easy for bacteria to digest. “It just pours out the ears and bubbles out the mouth”, Roach informs us. We are taken to the medical school in Maryland where the heads of “decedents” (the preferred term) are chainsawed off to be set in roasting pans and used by trainee face-lift surgeons to hone their skills on. There are also the recently deceased crash test dummies being beaten to a pulp to test the limits of human impact tolerance; or how about the the “crucifixion experiments”, where corpses were nailed to crosses in an attempt to prove the authenticity of the Turin shroud.

This light and fluffy read concentrates the mind wonderfully. It concentrates it, among other things, on the mind-brain problem. How could the thoughts one has while reading Roach’s book be but the jangling of insensate neuron receptors in the stuff that will eventually end up pouring out one’s ears and bubbling out of one’s mouth? Should you wish to use your brain before its imminent liquefaction – enquire at your local library or consult   for full bibliographic detail.


304 pages in Penguin

First published 2003

ISBN 978-0141007458


Mary Roach

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