A Life in Death
Death. It isn’t something that any of us like to think about, is it? However, the one certainty of being alive is that, one day, we won’t be. The funny thing is that nowadays, with all the medical and clinical advances of the modern world, we’re more divorced from death than we have ever been; and we fear it more than ever before. I’m in my early thirties and the only dead bodies I’ve ever seen are in museums. I have never been with one of my relatives when they’ve died, nor visited them in a chapel of rest (the result of living a long way away from the rest of my family). And I feel that something is missing, somehow. Not that I want to be ghoulish, but I do want to understand what and how things change at that final threshold. Hence the attraction of this book, written by Sue Black, an anatomist and forensic anthropologist at Dundee University. Black combines dazzling distinctions (she’s a Professor and a Dame) with refreshing down-to-earth Scots candour, and her remarkable book is part memoir, part treatise on death.
Now, I don’t read true crime; and, if I do venture into the thriller realm, it tends to be either psychological, or a cosy Golden-Age murder mystery where it’s all really about the intrigues of posh people in dinner jackets. I never got into the forensics TV dramas. So I’m really remarkably ignorant about the whole business – to the point that I hadn’t even heard of the job title ‘forensic anthropologist’ before. It turns out that these specialists often work in tandem with forensic pathologists. It’s the pathologist’s job to figure out the cause of death: bullet wound; strangulation; poison; that sort of thing. It’s the anthropologist’s job, says Black, to reconstruct what we can know about the person when they were alive: age, sex, stature and ancestry being the four key criteria that can help with an identification of an unknown body, or confirm the details of a known crime. Black’s work is astonishingly broad. She works closely with police forces and has helped to identify bodies found in fatal house fires; to assess and reunite dismembered bodies; to train constables to identify the victims of a large-scale mass fatality, such as a terrorist attack or plane crash; and to help with missing person cases.
You get the impression that Black isn’t easily ruffled. As a schoolgirl, she spent five years working in a butcher’s shop, after all, which is where the fascination with anatomy came in. But sometimes she has to face things that no one should have to confront. The most unexpected, and sobering, aspect of Black’s work was her time out in Kosovo, where she worked with a forensics team during the collection of evidence for the trial of Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague. She was part of an international effort to recover and identify the bodies of the Albanian Kosovans who’d been killed by Serbian soldiers, not in the progress of war, but through genocide. There are some heartbreaking moments here: an outhouse in which Black and her colleagues must separate the bodies of some forty men, from teenagers to octogenarians, who were gunned down; or the shallow grave in which a wounded man managed to bury what remained of eleven family members, including his eight children, where Black must distinguish between the different remains. Her work, for her at least, is less about providing evidence for the courts and more about ensuring that the dead can go to rest with dignity and decency.
That’s one of the things that stops this book being morbid. Black has such a powerful compassion in the way she interacts with the dead, whether they’re bodies who come to her as part of her police work, or the cadavers of those who have donated their bodies to scientific research. Throughout the book, Black’s gratitude, admiration and respect for these donors simply floods off the page. She was fortunate enough to study anatomy at Dundee, which still maintains a full anatomy school. Elsewhere, medics and anatomists are increasingly taught through virtual reality and other money-saving techniques. Black is robust in her opinion of that: nothing can compare to learning from a real person. She writes with enormous affection about Henry, the cadaver to whom she was assigned as a student anatomist, and who ‘taught’ her, ‘patiently’, all about the human form. She came to regard their relationship as a form of symbiosis and she stresses numerous times how amazed she is by the generosity and trust of those who continue to give their bodies to science. More importantly, she tears away the veil – the idea that dissection is somehow something we don’t think about or shouldn’t think about. She lets in the light, talks frankly and matter-of-factly about its fascination, and by the end of the book, she has you beginning to wonder about donating yourself (but I’m torn, because I really, really want to be dug up in two thousand years and put in a museum and I don’t expect I’d be in a fit state if I’d been dissected). Vanity, vanity, etc.
There is a lot of humour here, as well as a lot of pathos. The main thing is that Black makes a strong case for reconnecting with death, for coming to understand it as a part of existence that has its own fascinations and its own timeline. It isn’t something to be afraid of. The more we understand about it as a process, the less we need to fear. If we acknowledge that it’s the gentle closing down of our body, at a time that’s right and ready for us (I speak here of natural deaths, obviously), we might be readier to accept it. We might be less prone to demand resuscitation, or the horrible life-in-death situation of being kept alive in hospital, bleary with drugs, prolonging the inevitable for no reason or benefit. We have seen cases in our own family of lives kept going beyond the point where it would have been kinder to let nature take its course. In my own case, when I’ve definitely reached the Final Countdown, I’d like to go with grace and dignity. And I want to ensure that those I love get the same honour. I was moved to read about Black, at her mother’s deathbed, rallying her daughters to sing a barrage of Disney songs and old ballads, so that her mum’s last experiences would be full of joy and laughter and happiness. The hearing goes last, after all.
And so, next time I visit someone I love when they’re near the end, I’ll remember that. I’m going to take a leaf out of Black’s book: I won’t sit there quiet and awestruck and reverent, as if I’m in church. I won’t be nervous about touching them, as if death is somehow contagious. Instead, I’m going to do all I can to show that person that they’re not alone, and that the world around them is loving and warm and perhaps just a little bit silly. And maybe I’ll then have the courage to actually come face-to-face with death for the first time: to see that encounter not as something to endure, but as a honest, loving and necessary way to understand the world just that little bit better.
Highly recommended. Insightful, frank and somehow surprisingly upbeat, for the most part. You get the feeling that if you were ever to come under Black’s care, in a professional sense, you’d be in immensely good hands. She’s rather awesome.