Scottish Forensic Anthropologist and Professor Sue Black’s memoir about her life confronting death won the Saltire Book of the Year in 2018. Forensic anthropology (in case you are wondering) is the study of human remains in order to solve criminal cases. I was very excited to read this book.
Yet the first few chapters of All that Remains are pretty slow. Sue talks about her early life in Inverness and Dundee and what sparked her interest in getting into the field of forensic anthropology and anatomy. She had strong stomach, a practical Scottish clear-headed way about her and an early job working in a butchers, which normalised seeing dead things.
Every person in the world will experience a time when someone close to us dies, including the funeral and coming to terms with it and mourning, so talking about this at length seemed a bit pointless. Likewise, towards the end of the book Sue talks about how her team raised funds for a new anatomy department – this part was a bit boring.
A third of the way in, I gave up for several months and then came back to slog through it. I’m glad I did because this is when the book gets really interesting. Sue talks about the various unsolved cold cases of bones that have yet to be identified. Including one ‘The man from Balmore’ that remains unsolved to this day.
To be perfectly honest, I have never been spooked by the dead. It is the living who terrify me. The dead are much more predictable and co-operative.”
― Sue Black, All That Remains: A Life in Death
Sue explains the nitty gritty of the decomposition process (morbidly fascinating) along with the process of how people actually die. Along with the eccentric elderly characters who visit the University of Dundee and want to donate their bodies to science, but who want to see the cadavers first. This is when the book really takes flight.
Sue’s personal, emotional and professional selves are equally fascinating. She is able to compartmentalise the pain, suffering and harrowing violence done to people by other people into a locked room in her brain. Once she locks the door, she can go back to her own family life quite neatly and easily.
If I am working on decomposing remains. I find a room where the smell doesn’t register. If I am dealing with murders, dismemberment or traumatic events. I spend the day in a soft space where there is a sense of safety and calm…While occupying each box, I am aware that I am striving to be an inert observer. It is a form of analytical automation…the real me remains outside of that box somewhere, removed and protected from the sensory bombardment of my work. ― Sue Black, All That Remains: A Life in Death
Sue is both tough and soft, clinical and familiar with the remains of people that she looks after. She always operates from a place of the utmost respect and – in a strange way – love for the remains of the people in her care. Although her job is difficult, she is aware of the great honour and responsibility it entails to the family members of the missing person. She has seen incredible strength of character from family members, even when the most horrible things have befallen those they love.
The harrowing stories of her involvement in identifying mountains of bones in charred buildings in Kosovo in the 90’s or in body identification after the Boxing Day Tsunami in Thailand are the most powerful and moving parts of the book, these have an emotional immediacy to them that other parts of the book lack.
This is an interesting book. Sue Black is a formidable woman with a singular personality, set of skills and knowledge to do everyday what would terrify most people. For that she has my deepest admiration and respect.
I would give this book 4/5, it’s really worth reading and deeply profound.