‘A Life in Death’

All That Remains by Sue Black

As one of the world’s foremost anatomists and forensic anthropologists, Sue Black’s life in death has been full of interest. She has been a professor based at Dundee University for years, and, she was appointed as a Dame in 2016 for services to forensic anthropology and she is a good friend of Val McDermid. She shares her career story with us in a blend of memoir and fact that takes us through the many faces of death she’s encountered over the years.

In the wide-ranging Introduction, she begins by discussing how we talk about death, and it was interesting, refreshing too, that Black constantly refers to death as ‘she’, which puts another different face on the subject.

…despite being feminine in many languages where nouns have genders (including Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Lithuanian and Norse), she is often none the less depicted as a man.

The next chapter describes her first encounter with a corpse as a student, and she goes on to celebrate the still alive, lovely folk bequeathing their bodies to science that are still essential for doctors to train on.  Later on in the book she tells us how there is still nothing better than a real body, with all its individuality inside to teach doctors anatomy on. Every body is different and that’s an important fact for trainees to appreciate, dummies don’t have this USP! The anatomy lab at Dundee has in recent years been rebuilt to use new less toxic preservation methods too,  which reduce the amount of formalin and keep a better texture in the bodies to improve the experience for the dissection classes still further.

Did you know that there is one  tiny bone in our body that is never replaced, and is formed at around the 16th week of pregnancy and influenced by what your mother was eating at the time? The Otic capsule is found deep in the skull around the inner ear.  It, along with hair and nails etc will respond to ‘stable isotope analysis’ which are incredible tools available to forensics.

Sue Black has also been at the forefront of leading DVI – Disaster Victim Indentification, campaigning to set up a UK team, and training police and army etc in these skills so that when they’re sent to an emergency zone, they know what to do.  She was part of the UK teams working on the identification of bodies in the aftermath of the Tsunami and also the gruesome victims of slaughter in Kosovo, she has seen it all.

She comes across as a no nonsense woman with a great sense of humour and also a good deal of empathy, both of which are needed for this difficult job. The emphasis is on describing all the different ways in which she is called to look at death and the development of the work of forensic anthropologists and modern-day anatomists rather than detailed forensics, although there is grisly detail where appropriate too. What comes across on every page is that she respects the dead and what they can tell us.

All that remains was an  enjoyable read about a brilliant career with just the right amount of technical detail that I think will be a longlist contender for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize.  (8.5/10)


Source: Review copy

Sue Black, All That Remains (Doubleday, 2018) Hardback, 368 pages

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10 thoughts on “‘A Life in Death’

  1. Superb jacket! I’m a litte squeamish and so was slightly put off of this one whan I spotted it on social media but it sounds fascinating enough to overcome that by the sound of your review.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It is grim at times, but her respect for the dead shines through that. I enjoyed it a lot.

  2. I’ve read a couple other books about forensics before and find the topic gruesomely fascinating. I have a review copy of this that I hope to read soon. Definitely sounds like a Wellcome contender.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Being a memoir/non-fic blend, there’s less forensic detail, especially on the cold cases she has worked on (although one is covered in detail because they still don’t know who the man is!), than many other books – but her career as an anatomist and go-to forensic anthropologist is fascinating.

  3. Sounds really interesting! I love the forensic info in Val McDermid so would definitely be keen to hear from the lady (possibly?) responsible!

  4. AnnaBookBel says:

    I have McDermid’s book on Forensics on my shelves – I’m sure Black will feature in that too.

  5. Did she write a lot about how medical students talk about the bodies on which they practice? I’m not one for burial, so I’ve considered donating my body to science, but I have this horrible fear that someone will be saying snarky things about my corpse!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Ha! She was at pains to emphasise respect for the donated bodies, but by default most of them are old and diseased, and everyone is unique!

  6. Alex says:

    Thanks for the review of this one, which I’m adding to my wish list for a future read. Fascinating stuff!

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