Review: All That Remains: A Life In Death – Sue Black

What it means to work alongside death in a world that refuses to acknowledge her omnipresence.

 

One of the world’s leading forensic anthropologists, Sue Black, leads the reader on a reminiscent journey throughout her career, family, and personal history with the topic of death at the nucleus of her perspective. By personifying death as ‘her’ from the exposition of her book, Sue Black immediately presents the theme of death in a comforting and familiar role to help the reader become at ease with the morbid phantom that so frequently dominates the modern narrative.

The challenging nature of Black’s career as a forensic anthropologist hinders the comfort that we feel at the inception. As opposed to a forensic pathologist who determines the cause of a death, the anthropologist’s duty is to determine the identity of the deceased, which undoubtedly bears a more personal attachment for the reader as we delve into personal profiles of those gone before us, in largely suspicious or devastating circumstances.

Black guides us through some of the most overwhelming and difficult times she has faced in her career which include dismemberment cases, murder cases, sexual exploitation cases, mass fatalities such as the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, and war crimes in Kosovo. She dedicates one chapter to detailing her work at the massacre sites in Kosovo from 1999 where she was determined to work through 8 weeks at a time for numerous years in abominable conditions to save the identities of the victims.

“Picture this scene: me, sweat, dripping down my face and down my arms into my latex gloves, on my hands and knees sifting through rubble, face to face with boiling masses of maggots and rotting tissue…”

Despite the lurid topics and experiences covered, Black manages to harvest the light within the darkness in each of her accounts, emphasising that during the most difficult times there are “moments that counterbalance the daily horrors, and they are the ones that stick with you”.

We also hear about perplexing cases of unresolved missing persons and the extent to which Black has worked tirelessly in attempts to give closure to grieving families. She even includes detailed photographic evidence of a particular missing persons clothing before the epilogue to ensure her efforts are thorough. She understands that the identification of a body isn’t merely for the authorities, or a puzzle to be pieced together, but solely for the benefits of a grieving family to be able to receive the truth, grieve honestly and to proceed to make arrangements for their loved ones corpse. This is merely a glimpse into the dedication to her work that we see from Black throughout the entire memoir.

Black’s openness and acceptance of death defies the macabre expectation of a book entitled ‘All That Remains: A Life in Death’ and her consistently candid attitude is culminated with her own predetermined decisions to have her body embalmed and given to science for education. She ponders the decision, ‘I quite fancy the idea, when my time comes, of floating peacefully in the Black Tank. How cool would that be?’ She recollects ‘Henry’, the name given to the corpse which she dissected in her younger years at University and hopes to be of equivalent value to future generations. She highlights that the legacy you leave behind can still have an impact long after your death, leaving the reader to question ‘what remains?’

 

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