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All That Remains: A Life in Death

All That Remains: A Life in Death

Professor Sue Black DBE
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
A book on death written by Professor Dame Sue Black DBE a professor of anatomy and forensic anthropology.

Let’s start at the beginning shall we? The introduction itself goes for just over 10 pages where the author talks of her early life which included working in a butchers during her school holidays watching how the butchers skilfully prepared the meat, cutting the flesh from the white bone, separating joints and sinew in order to show the meat off to its best, explaining how cold the butcher's shop was and that you could only warm your hands when the fresh liver came in from the abattoir the blood and liver still warm. At this stage I thought to myself this could well have led the author to become a bloody serial killer, talking of sharp knives and how a sharp knife was and is safer than a blunt one, but have an accident with a sharp knife and the consequences can be much more interesting. The book has a certain sense of humour which, having myself dealt with death, you most certainly need.

I wrote the above having read the opening introduction, I then read the next few chapters and thought I must write this review as I go along as there are so many interesting facts and figures; however, I’m not going to stop reading just to fill this review with actual figures and medical terms which the reader of the book will find out in due course. I’d fill the whole review with facts and figures if I were to do that and leave no room to tell you what the book is actually about. What I will say is this, the author explains that in the beginning of our lives as we all know two cells come together. The figures then are mind blowing as the cells multiply, all pre programmed to form a new life, billions of cells to make us who we are and how during our life these cells die and are replaced when we just go about our daily live oblivious of what our bodies are going through. Then when it all ends how nature changes and the next stage of nature takes over.

The way the physical aspects of death are explained early on is very good, I have been lucky or unlucky enough to have dealt with what the police call “sudden death”. All that term “sudden death” means is that some poor soul has died, normally at home and as a death certificate hasn’t been issued by the family GP then the police are called by the doctor or ambulance service. Sometimes neighbours call the police when they haven’t seen Mr Smith or Jones for a week or two which can be a nasty affair!

The author explains in detail the stages of which the body goes through once death has occurred. There are four stages and I recognised all four; from someone who has just died and is only an hour or so dead the skin displaying a palid pale where the blood has started to sink away from the skin giving that look when someone is ill and you say “my you look like death warmed up”, right through to when the body has discoloured and has started to decompose.

The writing is informative rather than ghoulish and if you have never seen death, or just seen a friend or relative laid out, then I’m sure if you were interested enough to read this review then you will read the book and find it most interesting, fascinating even, I know I did.

Professor Black’s book tells of her family and how her parents died and her grandparents, all deaths were different. She wrote about their lives as well which gave this book a great human touch. Here she tells of the silence that is present within a room that contains a dead body. How true and anyone who has experienced this will agree that the feeling is completely different to other quiet places; it is a strange phenomena. My thought is that maybe it’s a subconscious connection between the living and the dead, but as I was reading her text regarding the silence I was nodding my head in agreement.

This book does touch on any religious beliefs, she does talk briefly on the different types of funerals throughout the world and there is a stage where the subject matter is a bit boring, however as the subjects are contained within chapters it doesn’t really spoil the overall book.

I wanted to finish this book quickly, I know how much Auld -Yin likes to get the reviews out as soon as possible, however I needed a break for a few days. Not because I didn’t like the book, far from it, it’s very well written, her description of when she has to attend court and give evidence is exceptional, the terrible details that have to be spoken when the victims family are present is vividly there for all to imagine. I just needed a break from the subject. I was lying in bed at night thinking about my own mortality and the deaths I had dealt with in the past, this book brought that all back. It can get you thinking, this book, that’s for sure, so sorry A Y but I really did need a few days off!

A fascinating aspect of anthropology is that it deals with identification of the dead (which is different from pathology, a pathologist deals with cause of death) from what could be little more than a couple of bones, bones which a layman wouldn’t even identify as human remains. She touches on new forms of identification of the living which sounds very interesting, such as blood vessels in the hands.

Those of you who served in Kosovo might find this interesting. The author had several tours of six and eight weeks over two years there, working on indictment scenes and the things she saw and did are incredible, what a job to have to do. A large chapter is dedicated to Kosovo with a picture of her on her first day there. She very quickly outlined the history of why this conflict started. I was amazed to discover that it went back to 1359 when The Ottoman Empire invaded Kosovo. Talk about holding a grudge, and when Tito died and Yugoslavia fell apart there was nothing to stop what happened. Her work in helping to identify victims and helping in securing evidence for the war crimes trials at The Hague is to be respected and admired, she certainly deserved being awarded a Dame Hood.

This book is different to say the least. If Kosovo was a man made hell of destruction of life then the infamous Tsunami in Thailand and other Asian countries around The Indian Ocean some years later was a natural disaster of biblical proportions. The carnage is talked about and graphically explained, with corpses bloated so much their arms started to rise above them as if beckoning for attention. I honestly don’t know how she and her colleagues dealt with it, but I suppose someone had to.

This book may not be every readers cup of tea and as the saying goes “ignorance is bliss” but there is no denying it one day we will become dead and all that remains of us will be our mortal remains. I found this book interesting and informative and not in the slightest bit morbid, it just gets you thinking. I could have written more but I hope this will have got your curiosity going just enough to give this book a go.
Oh if you are thinking of leaving your remains to science then she describes how she started out on her cadaver which she shared with another student and what they do now at Dundee University, fascinating stuff and worth a read.
I’ll leave you with this, don’t think too deeply about it, just enjoy life when you can 5/5 mushroom heads.
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