A Forensic Anthropologist on Her Life’s Work in Death

Book review: All that Remainsby Sue Black (Amazon / Book Depository)

As the product of a strict, no-nonsense, Scottish Presbyterian family where a spade was called a shovel and empathy and sentimentality were often viewed as weaknesses, I like to think my upbringing has made me pragmatic and thick-skinned, a coper and a realist. When it comes to matters of life and death I harbor no misconceptions and in discussing them I try to be honest and truthful, but that does not mean I don’t care and it doesn’t make me immune to pain and grief or unsympathetic to that of others. What I do not have is a maudlin sentimentality about death and the dead.

Sue Black, Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology at Dundee University, is a forensic anthropologist who’s world-renowned for her skills and unique scientific expertise. All that Remains blends her personal story and experiences with the science she’s mastered, helping readers understand something about forensic anthropology’s possibilities, and likewise, what she’s learned about death.

She’s been called on to use that expertise in the difficult work of disaster victim identification, including after the 2005 tsunami in Thailand, and leading a team identifying victims of war and genocide in Kosovo. These portions are worth the read alone, as they show how complex this field of work actually is, and how emotionally and mentally harrowing as well. Recalling her experience in Kosovo, Black writes that “It tested me by teaching me how deep my abilities run, so that when I need to draw on them now, I know how far I can dig.”

In the UK, she’s used her techniques of forensic identification to help solve crimes, and not only those involving the dead. In one heartbreaking but incredible example, she applied anthropological forensics to identify a man filming child pornography by his hands, something I didn’t know was possible.

The forensic anthropologist’s role is first to help establish who the person may have been in life. Were they male or female? Tall or short? Old or young?

This is not for the squeamish, of which I am one, so fair warning. I felt woozy when Black described her early experiences with a dissection cadaver and the culture around anatomy labs and body donation. Later, the subject and pacing abruptly change, as Black shifts to recounting specific cases and events where she was called to contribute her expertise, and these are more what I’d hoped to learn about. I found this second half with stories about work-related experiences more edifying than the book’s first part.

The memoir portion is strange, as she recounts the stories of her parents’ deaths in a distant, chilly tone. The stories don’t seem to serve a greater purpose beyond examples of the confrontation of death, a subject she stresses we all must deal with.

There’s something of a disconnect between the voice used to tell these memoir and family reflections and the one describing her professional experience. I found the latter compelling and the former stilted. It was also difficult to read for the emotional intensity of the subject matter around her parents’ deaths in old age, which I think a reader is likely to feel even if Black tells it with distance and the cool acceptance she’s cultivated around death. It had me shaken and feeling things I wasn’t expecting, although their deaths were comparatively peaceful to those she’s investigated in her career. The bleak description and tone are unsettling, and I didn’t see the purpose of including them.

Black has a direct, unsentimental approach to death, underscored by work which gives her a greater understanding of the processes and what remains, so this confrontational element is understandable, but she emphasizes it to the reader in uncomfortable ways, like reminding that every day we’re closer to our deaths than ever. She argues it’s healthy to come to terms with the reality of death and harbor no illusions around it, but the frankness of the presentation feels more abrasive than helpful.

My final gripe is that I was bothered by some opinions that felt inappropriate, like that she doesn’t go to the doctor if she’s not feeling sick because they’ll just tell her to lose weight, and we’re all going to die anyway? That’s fine if it’s your personal choice, but I would be careful expressing it thusly, as some readers might have the perception she has more medical expertise applicable for the living than she actually does.

But the impression that comes across most strongly is Black’s respect for death, and her attempts to bridge the divide between life and death with that respect. She has a uniquely different perspective thanks to her understanding of what remains can reveal about the life that was lived. One deeply moving section details her relationship with a man who will donate his body to the anatomy lab, but who asked to tour it, learn its workings, and meet students first. It was a challenge even for the dispassionate Black, but one she handled gracefully and meaningfully.

And sometimes the science imparted is downright fascinating and beautifully told:

The nutrient building blocks required to construct our otic capsule were supplied by Mum from what she was eating around sixteen weeks into her pregnancy. So within our head, in that minute piece of bone just big enough to hold four raindrops, we will perhaps carry for the rest of our lives the elemental signature of what our mother had for lunch when she was four months pregnant. Proof, if any were needed, that our mums never leave us, and a whole new perspective on the mystery of how they manage to get inside our heads.

Despite her ease in subjects that many of us struggle to consider with the depth and intensity that she does on a daily basis, Black also admits when the work deeply affects her and how it’s taught her something about humanity, as happens often in her disaster victim identification work.

For as long as I live, the depth of that man’s love for his [children] will remain with me as a beacon of how humanity and compassion can triumph even amid the most appalling adversity.

An uneven tone and sometimes uneasy topic but with illuminating, informative, and reflective moments amidst fascinating and clearly-written science. 3/5

All that Remains:
A Renowned Forensic Scientist on Death, Mortality, and Solving Crimes
by Sue Black

published March 5, 2019
first published in the UK in 2018

Amazon / Book Depository

I received an advance copy of the new US edition courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.


21 thoughts on “A Forensic Anthropologist on Her Life’s Work in Death

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    1. I do love true crime! But the crime in this one is minimal, the subtitle is misleading. It’s much more focused on the science of forensic anthropology and what can be deduced from the body about a person’s life. Aside from her university lab work in anatomy it covers more the disaster victim identification topic and coming to terms with mortality.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Oooh, I’m thrilled to see that you’ve reviewed this as I recently bought it in one of the kindle 99p sales. As an anthropologist, I LOVE seeing more anthropology books out in the world and within the discipline, there is such a separation between the different sub-disciplines. As a social anthropologist, we’re never taught anything to do with biological/forensic anthropology so this was practically an auto-buy for me especially given it deals with death which is one of my morbid academic obsessions.

    I’m looking forward to reading it and seeing what I think of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’ll really like it, especially with your background in the field!! I’m sure it’ll complement your discipline well. The actual science parts were wonderful, I just didn’t quite connect with the memoir element. I loved learning about her work and got so much from those sections, it’s completely fascinating.


  2. Great review. I would love to read this book – I am not squeamish and I am interested in all things unusual and macabre, so I guess this is a book for me. They often say in the East that Westerners have not “embraced” the concept of death and that is the problem. I wonder about this sometimes. I guess the author has to be “direct, unsentimental” when taking about death and corpses because it is her job, and how else would she maintain her sanity if she does not emotionally distance herself from some aspects of her work? Therefore, I really appreciated you commenting on her state of mind.


  3. It seems like you and Kazen at Always Doing both had mixed feelings about this one, but it’s a topic that interests me enough that I’m sure I’ll pick it up eventually. It’s interesting to me that the author’s writing about her job was more compelling than the more personal stories about her family. Fortunately, I’m also more interested in that part of her book 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mixed feelings was definitely the case…it almost seemed like she would’ve been more comfortable writing strictly about her work but a publisher pushed for private stories, how she encountered death on that personal level with her parents or something. This memoir portion just didn’t work for me, and I was too squeamish for the cadaver lab section! But the rest is absolutely to be recommended, I learned so much from it and she writes the science very readably while still very informative, which as a non-sciencey person I always appreciate 🙂


    1. Ooh I’ll be looking forward to hearing what it is! I liked a lot about this one, especially the science aspects, it was just the memoir that didn’t really do it for me. I’d love to read something else on a similar topic!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Fantastic, and detailed, review as always! It’s interesting that the family reflections felt distant, I wonder if that’s maybe something to do with the relationship she had with her family?

    Your review reminded me of the song lyrics “You say that you don’t fear death, but you know you respect it”

    I’m really interested in reading this one, I have the book, and the audio which she narrates herself so I might give that a go. I’m actually going to see her tonight at a Penguin Live event: A Life in Death, Forensic Scientist Sue Black in Conversation (with Hallie Rubenhold). Rubenhold’s The Five is another book on my highly anticipated list!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re probably right, she mentions her family not being particularly close, like not saying they love each other – things like that. But then why include these disturbing stories of their deaths? it shook me a little, honestly! Maybe she’s not bothered by the intensity of that kind of material but I was, at least.

      After reading the book I watched some YouTube clips of her speaking, and it made me like her so much more. I don’t do audiobooks but I could see where hearing her tell it might make a difference because she’s dry and soft-spoken but clever and funny. So I like her and admire her work, I just didn’t connect with or get everything I wanted from the book, if that makes sense!

      And I’m so jealous of this event but thrilled that you get to see it!!! I LOVED The Five, I thought it was completely fascinating, respectful, and beautifully done. I’m not even so drawn to the Victorian period and it ends up being a social history of that era and not really true crime at all, so I think it’s saying a lot that it kept me glued to it. A book about the victims’ lives was long overdue but she did it justice. Enjoy the event and let me know how it was, if you have time! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, I guess when you work in her field, death become normal and less impactful, and maybe she forgot that for her reader, it’s still an intense thing to handle!

        I must say I’m rather excited for tonight! The Victorian era is probably one of the British eras I know most about and I enjoy reading about it as a setting, and I agree, a book about the victims was long overdue!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Allo, Allo again,
    I’ve thought about reading this one with my law enforcement background and my affinity for science. The reviews I’ve encountered are similar to those you’ve listed, so perhaps I’ll hold off. The scientific element interests me, but the uncomfortable writing she appears to exhibit would most likely turn me off. Thank you for the review, it was really helpful. I’ve added you to my blogroll. Have an exceptional remainder of the week!
    My best as always,

    Liked by 1 person

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