Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#StevesLibrary: All That Remains

When you pick up a book about death, you expect it to be slightly sad and macabre. That is just the nature of the subject. Yet, Professor Dame Sue Black is able to make death a more welcoming subject by detailing her experiences working in forensic anthropology in All That Remains: A Life in Death. This career has taken An interesting and varied book where the author covers in detail her experiences working in forensic anthropology that has seen her assisting in criminal investigations, assessing potential war crimes, and helping to put names to the bodies of unfortunate people that lost their lives in natural disasters. Black is extremely professional and this is evident from her accounts throughout, although you’ll be glad to know there is a bit of humour too. To me, All That Remains is the perfect companion to Stiff by Mary Roach. Both deal with the topic of death and the uses of human cadavers, yet they cover different topics and viewpoints.

It is quite clear to most of us that Black’s work is potentially traumatic, human bodies are not something that most of us experience on a daily basis. I for one would not be able to hold it together after a disaster to help assist in identifying human remains. Black has both a unique viewpoint and a personal relationship with death, something that no doubt helps her to keep her cool when the going is tough. Despite the topic, Black is a professor of anatomy and forensic anthropology which means that she has the necessary knowledge and skill to transform the topic into one that is life-affirming, instead of being depressing. After reading All That Remains, it is clear to me that Black loves her job as much as I do frogs or snakes. It is really encouraging to read about the successes of a passionate woman, in an unconventional field, especially one that has managed to achieve has much as Black has. Thankfully, she has an understanding family, but some sacrifices were innevitable.

From the outset, Black makes it very clear that she has been surrounded by death from a very young age. This includes quite a lot of personal detail about the various deaths in her family, which to me is both a good and a bad thing. Personal touches always help a reader to connect with the author, although on the topic of the loss of a loved one, there is always the risk of oversharing. This was the only thing within All That Remains that I didn’t favour as much as the other content, for the reason that I thought it was too personal. Throughout the rest of the book is a perfect narrative about what it is like to work in an unusual field, what is needed to be done to raise £1 million for a new mortuary, and develop techniques to help catch criminals. Sue Black has had an extremely unique career (and continues to do so), All That Remains is an ode to it, helping others to love the very work that she finds so satisfying and intriguing.

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