Review: All That Remains: A Life in Death

All That Remains: A Life in Death audiobook cover. The midsection of a skeleton laying horizontally. All That Remains: A Life in Death by Sue Black.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Duration: 11 hrs 20 mins.

All that Remains: A Life in Death by Sue Black is an introduction to forensic anthropology like no other. In this memoir Professor Black lays out her own journey to becoming one of the most respected forensic anthropologists and anatomists in the country, and talks us through what it really means to live with death; as an academic, an investigator, and as a human being.

Audible Summary: "Sue Black confronts death every day. As Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology, she focuses on mortal remains in her lab; at burial sites; at scenes of violence, murder and criminal dismemberment; and when investigating mass fatalities due to war, accident or natural disaster. In All That Remains, she reveals the many faces of death she has come to know, using key cases to explore how forensic science has developed and what her work has taught her. 

Do we expect a book about death to be sad? Macabre? Sue’s book is neither. There is tragedy, but there is also humour in stories as gripping as the best crime novel. Our own death will remain a great unknown. But as an expert witness from the final frontier, Sue Black is the wisest, most reassuring, most compelling of guides.

©2018 Sue Black (P)2018 Random House Audiobooks." 

Professor Dame Sue Black's knowledge, experience, and engaging ability to disseminate complex information have always impressed me on tv and radio, so I had high hopes for this audiobook. She is a natural teacher, and frrom the first chapter I was envious of her students for having the privilege of a tutor who is able to impart her knowledge with insight and in such an accessible fashion. Whilst Black is famous for her no-nonsense approach, which she attributes in part to her Scottish Presbyterian upbringing, her book is far from cold or clinical. Instead it is very human, and even death 'Herself' has been somewhat anthropomorphised, with Black welcoming Her as an intrinsic part of our species' existence. Black greets death almost as an old friend; with understanding, acceptance, and respect for Her eventual victory over our attempts to prolong life.

One of the things I was most struck by as I listened to this audiobook was how well Black compartmentalises the traumatic things she works on. She is never unmoved, but is always unwavering in her determination to do the very best by the remains in her care. Forensic Anthropologists, she says, are the "sin eaters of our day". They peer into the deepest, darkest corners so that the rest of us do not have to. In this book, Professor Black takes us with her, in a safe but not entirely sanitised way, and sheds light upon the shadowy places we would normally rather not look closely at.

The author begins by urging the listener, "Stay with me, I promise it won't be too boring." She keeps this promise throughout, and the biographical elements of this audiobook are heartfelt and raw in their unflinching candour. Black does not shy away from relating her most personal experiences of death, detailing the deaths of loved ones with the openness she espouses. It is almost difficult to listen to, at times, so acutely did it remind me of my own experiences of bereavement. But throughout this audiobook, and even when her voice seems close to breaking, Black's message has been that we ought not turn away from death; should not close our eyes to its realities, or fear its nearness. Gradually, as my initial voyeuristic unease gave way to appreciation for the lessons being shared, I found Black's steady, matter-of-fact storytelling oddly reassuring. There is comfort in knowing that even someone who has seen death in myriad forms is often uncertain of how best to manage its impact upon those closest to her. Even her intimacy with the dead has not necessarily made it easier to cope with them dying, and her trademark steadfastness and logic have wavered a little when death has visited closer to home. I think most of us feel wholly unequipped to deal with death, and as a society we have chosen to manage this inadequacy by divorcing ourselves from the reality wherever possible. If we want to cultivate a healthier relationship with the end of life, Black reiterates the importance of challenging the modern assumption that a clinical, medicalised death managed by strangers is 'the norm'.

There are two especially touching relationships in Black's book, and neither are with her family, though they feature heavily, too. The first is Black's unwavering respect for the donated cadaver, nicknamed Henry, who provides her initiation into the world of anatomical study. Her appreciation for his gift is touching without being saccharin, and is echoed in the special relationship she has with Arthur, an elderly man and prospective donor whose curiosity about the process she is persuaded to indulge. I hope that Arthur got to read the book, before his time came to join the process from the other side of the scalpel.

Black's grandmother, to whom she was especially close, once said "We never know when an alignment of moments may produce the right alchemy for change." That proves so for Black, whose career has encompassed many life-changing moments, the impact of which she could never have predicted at the start. In the course of this audiobook Black uses her platform to educate the listener on the science, the politics, and the human cost of the cases in which she was involved. This includes detailing the cold cases of two missing women whose families are still awaiting answers, and discussing her work with Mass Fatality Events.

The chapter on the Kosovo crisis in the late 90s was harrowing but important, especially given the similar events which have continued to plague various parts of the world since. Despite being very new to working in a warzone, Black's camaraderie with the team was touching. Though knowing what Alf's sobriquet stood for, I can think of a few people I may need to rename. Even in the darker chapters of this book there is a lot of humour, such a Black's advice that smelling like putrifying horse will not win you any friends at the lunch table - even down-wind...

Black's story about the Kosovo-Albanian family of 12 was one of the most moving in the whole book. 11 of the family perished in the blast of a rocket-propelled grenade, and the only surviving member had to hide from the attackers until he could try to recover some of his loved ones' remains. The man's bravery in locating, burying, and then allowing the exhumation of their commingled remains in pursuit of justice is astonishing and heartrending.

The author's memories of the 2004 Tsunami gave me a greater insight into the challenges faced by those involved in Disaster Victim Identification. Black speaks of the piles of corpses collected by local people who were trying to help, left outside local temples with no record of where they were found or by whom. The bodies were often bloated, disfigured, and decomposing, and were frequently incorrectly identified in the early days. The Norwegians eventually funded a centralised, temporary mortuary, but until it was up and running the conditions in Thailand were "hell on Earth". Teams remained for over a year, attempting to identify as many of the victims as possible, processing 5400 in Thailand alone. When whole families were wiped out there was often nobody to report them missing, and no DNA from relatives to match with. I found the timeline of procedures introduced by the DVI team very informative, and it certainly enhanced the respect I already had for the people who work in these conditions.

One aspect I had not previously considered was the lack of standardisation in process. This audiobook contains a very interesting discussion about respecting the independent governance, culture, and customs of the country in which a disaster has occurred when working to help "identify the deceased, or parts of the deceased" during a catastrophic event abroad. Following procedure and observing best practice as we understand it must be done sensitively, with an awareness of local laws, traditions, and beliefs with which they may be at odds. It can be frustrating but its importance cannot be overlooked.

Black summarises the importance of educating emergency services about disaster protocols, thus; "With disasters it is not a case of 'if' but 'when', so it is vital that when the next one strikes, we're ready to respond to the very best of our abilities, however big or small the incident may be. In our world of increasingly senseless acts of violence, the UK's first DVI commander, Graham Walker, reminded us all that whereas terrorists only need to get lucky once to accomplish their mission, our investigative forces can't rely on luck, they have to win every single time to keep us safe. With the best will in the world that is unrealistic, and so we must train and prepare for all eventualities, whilst constantly praying that we will never need to put them into action. But when we do, our response should demonstrate that our humanity transcends the worst malevolence of which our species and nature are capable."

Her work with the police on a more domestic level is no less fascinating, and especially so with regard to a ghastly sexual abuse case, in which they had to develop new techniques to try and identify the perpetrator from his hands alone. This aspect is covered in a BBC Radio documentary by Professor Black, which describes it in more detail and gives you a good sense of Black's narrative style. The programme is available to stream internationally for over a year. A three-minute clip is available, here.

I would recommend this audiobook to anyone who has an interest in the topic, or would like to know more. There is an alternative version which has been narrated by someone else, but I urge listeners to purchase the version of this audiobook which is read by the author herself. Sue Black's narration is clear, instructive, emotive, and engaging. The listener is not blinded with science, but is quietly introduced to it and given enough context to help the information bed-in. Despite the book's theme being one which some people may expect to find distressing, Black's calm, gentle delivery makes it quite relaxing. It is true that she covers unsettling topics, but her overriding message is that we ought not to fear death, for we cannot outrun it. This refusal to indulge in melodramatics is unexpectedly reassuring, and leaves the book feeling quite comforting.

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1 comment

  1. This sounds like a fascinating book. I really enjoyed Mary Roach's "Stiff," and have always been interested in forensics, but I've never delved into forensic anthropology. Definitely added to the TBR list. Thanks, Katie!

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