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