Book review: All That Remains - A Life In Death, By Sue Black

Is Death the new New Nature? Publishing trends are always inexplicable; but recently we have had Raymond Tallis examining his own future cadaver in The Black Mirror, Richard Holloway contemplating mortality (and even immortality) in Waiting For The Last Bus, Maggie O'Farrell chronicling her 17 brushes with death in I Am, I Am, I Am and Kathryn Mannix's subtle With The End In Mind. It is a veritable reliquary out there.
Professor Sue Black, forensic anthropologist and authorProfessor Sue Black, forensic anthropologist and author
Professor Sue Black, forensic anthropologist and author

Now we have Sue Black’s book, a combination of memoir, case history and polemic as well. It is a fascinating, neatly written volume which is not for the squeamish.

Professor Dame Sue Black (I rather like that the fly-leaf gives her full nomenclature on the back, but it’s just Sue Black on the front) is an anatomist and forensic anthropologist. Her expertise in chopping things up started as a weekend job in a local butcher’s shop.

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Although the reader learns a lot about her – including her father’s dementia, her great-uncle dropping stone dead into a bowl of tomato soup, the careers of her children – the book’s primary focus is not on either her life or the living. It is, as she eloquently says, that, “whatever we believe, life and death are unquestionably inextricably bound parts of the same continuum”. This is made most moving and manifest when she writes about “Henry”. He was not a person she ever knew. He was the corpse on which she honed her skills. The way in which she dignifies him as her “silent teacher” permeates the book. I was, frankly, agog at the chapter where she discusses a man who wishes to leave his body to science, and who wants to see the operating table on which his dead body will be laid, and cut, and scrutinised.

There is a kind of tight-lipped tragedy throughout this book. Do the dead have rights? Do we have a responsibility towards the dead? When Black writes about her work dealing with the identification of Kosovans killed during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, the writing is visceral. If you don’t want to read a book where someone has to sift through scores of dead bodies, writhing with maggots, trying to determine the nature of the blood splatters, then look away now. She worked in the aftermath of the tsunami in Thailand and the accounts are similarly shuddersome. The two things that come from experiences I can barely imagine are Black’s capability for kindliness in the most hellish of situations and the political zeal that it kindles. It is almost funny how long it took Tony Blair to respond to her findings; almost tragic that it was even necessary.

There are a number of endorsements on this book – Kathy Reichs, Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen – and I did wonder at points whether crime writers or criminals would gain most from it. The chapter – again, avert eyes those of nervous disposition – on the dismemberment of bodies is ghoulishly intriguing. If I ever have to sever a head, I know now the best way to do so. Yet again, in these accounts of her work, there is a terrible sympathy. Particularly, it is in the failing. She devotes a chapter and appendix to one case, “The Man from Balmore”, which has eluded her. She sets out the details, down to a chipped tooth and a Topman polo shirt, and requests readers, if they have any knowledge, to help in identifying an anonymous body.

Because the real thing here is not the cause of death, but the nature of the life. Black is genuinely moving about the respect we should have for the dead, even if it is only to give them a name. Other chapters deal with the funereal: the shift from burial to cremation being the most significant (although she does throw in cannibalism as well as Tibetan bya gtor – sky-burial).

Towards the end of the book there might be a little too much academic politicking for some readers, even those who have already winced at the gruesomeness. There are also a few bits of couthiness and cliché that distract from the narrative – “Phew!”, “OK, I admit it”, “a bit doolally”, “a dream team”, a not entirely convincing conviction in second sight, a wee anecdote about Sir Thomas Urquhart dying of laughter – that seem as if parts were formerly public speeches.

But this is a lass o’ pairts story. From the initial working-class background to the university via the knives in the butcher’s shop, to the world, policy-making and politicians – there is nothing unadmirable in this tale. There is also much that is just wrenching. The case of Coatbridge schoolgirl Moira Anderson and the failure to find her remains despite huge investment is simply too sad to contemplate.

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There is much to admire in this book – more to admire in the person who wrote it perhaps. The title niggled me for the day I read it, and then I remembered. Black has spent her life dealing with remains, but the title harks back to Philip Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb”. All that remains may be dust but what remains of us is love.

All That Remains: A Life In Death, by Sue Black, Doubleday, £16.99