Cadaver -
Death -
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Mary Roach
W. W. Norton and Company
Publication Date
May 01, 2003
Number of Pages
Awards Editor’s Choice Award (2003), winner Elle Readers Prize

The only dead body I have ever seen, was that of my Uncle Ron’s in 2012. Up until then I had avoided the sight of dead people for fear that I would be haunted and never sleep again. We were with him when he was dying in the hospice and I popped outside his room for a minute to make a phone call and when I came back in, he was gone.

There was something so comforting and surreal about the whole thing. It was the moment I was able to differentiate between someone being there and not being there. That was not him.  That was just his body. And it was in this terribly sad and awakening moment that I remembered a quote from a book I read, called Stiff.

“You are a person, and then you cease to be a person, and a cadaver takes your place.”

About a decade ago I was watching an episode of Six Feet Under (best show ever by the way) and one of the characters was talking about a book called Stiff by Mary Roach. Many years later I found that book on a shelf at my brother's house. I stole it, read it and it changed the way I thought about life, but most importantly, how I thought about death.

Stiff is about Mary’s search to discover what happens to the human body after we die. I know, it sounds morbid and at times it is. But it is also really, really clever and fascinatingly hilarious.

Trembling with excitement and anxiety, she tours the FBI body farms to learn how the human vessel will decompose in various places such as the trunk of a car, or half buried, or in some other hideous circumstance. With terrific and terrifying detail, she explains what happens when you donate your body to science or what happens to you in a plane crash. Along with forensics and science, she decorates the book with her personal experience with death. That’s what kept me reading page after page, chapter after horrifying chapter.

With Mary sharing her own experiences with death, it allowed me to relate to this intriguing yet particularly odd women. She inserted humor into a topic that should be void of it and I felt almost guilty that I was laughing through the horror of it all. Some people may take offence to it and that is completely fine. This book is not for everyone. But it was for me. I read it several times before I saw a dead body and several times afterwards. Each and every time I finished it, I felt better. Not because it explained everything, but because it simplified everything.

Although it’s not particularly nice to think about what happens to our bodies when we die, for me, the more I read about the process the less afraid of it I was. This book reminded me so much of one of my favourite poems by John Berger.

“What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together...  It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.”

Don’t get me wrong. Dying scares the absolute shit out of me. But it’s the dying that scares me, not the afterwards part. I think about things like, Will I be alone? Will it be painful? Will I be leaving my family or joining them? Those are the worries I have.

If burying me in the ground gives my family a place to visit, then by all means, bury me in the ground. If scattering my ashes to the wind allows them to think that I am free, then by all means, scatter my ashes to wind. And if my body is able to help a doctor or scientist be better at their job, then by all means, donate my body to science and allow it to be chopped up and dissected for the good of humanity.

But there is one thing that Mary and I are absolutely adamant about. If I am in an accident and there is an option to donate my organs to a living human being, then my family better give consent.

Out of all the organs in the body, my heart is the most important to me. It is the physical representation of the love that I have given and received in my life. But when I die, I’ll take that love with me and leave the vessel that it was once stored in.

I have a tattoo on my wrist that says “I carry your heart” and it is my hope that one day someone will carry mine. Physically or metaphorically, either one is okay with me.

About the Contributor

Jules recently moved to Toronto from New Zealand to see how the other side of the world lives – apparently it is not that different. She is the social media guru and a film reviewer for Narrative Muse and gets beyond excited about anything muse-worthy. She can also connect any actress or actor to Meryl Streep in 6 degrees of separation – that’s a lot harder than you think.