W.W. Norton & Company (2003), $23.95
In the introduction to Stiff, San Francisco-based journalist Mary Roach warns, "Many people will find this book disrespectful. There is nothing amusing about being dead, they will say. Ah, but there is. Being dead is absurd."
Once Roach has the disclaimer out of the way, every page of Stiff fairly drips with dark humor. But it's the author's journalistic eye for detail, color, and research that drives this rich history and celebration of corpses. A travel writer by trade, Roach treks to anatomy labs to watch facial dissections, visits with forensic scientists to uncover what carcasses can tell, explores the largely unheralded role cadavers play as human crash test dummies, and also finds out how the military uses dead bodies in ballistics studies. Along the way, she stops for breezy digressions about all that can, and has, happened to the human corpus -- dissection, embalming, crucifixion, cannibalism -- and wonders what, exactly, should happen to hers.
This is all wonderful material, and only occasionally does Roach stretch for a strained pun. Most of the time she strikes a balance between witty, morbid curiosity and genuine respect for the dead. In the end, however, her respect for the living is likely to stick with you: Stiff is best when it's illuminating the scientists, students, and other professionals who make their livelihoods working with the deceased. Only a certain kind of person finds this stuff interesting, after all, and Roach joins their ranks as a very capable guide.