I went through a phase as a young adult when I thought I might go to school to be a forensic scientist or medical examiner (this was when we were all watching a lot of CSI). That didn’t pan out, but I still love reading books about the profession (I Love This!). Dr. Judy Melinek’s Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner was another excellent book about the same subject. And if you liked Mary Roach’s Stiff, I’d recommend this as well.
“But to be perfectly honest, I have never been spooked by the dead. It is the living who terrify me. The dead are much more predictable and co-operative.”
Sue Black is a forensic anthropologist and human anatomist, and the book explains the ins and outs of both professions, and her contributions to them both. The anatomy aspect is really interesting — Black actually sat down and wrote a comprehensive reference book about juvenile skeletal material, because one didn’t exist and she needed it for work. So she got together with some other anatomists and wrote one. She’s written several other scientific texts as well, but All That Remains comes off as less technical than you’d expect.
Black uses specific cases (murders, accidents, even the 2004 tsunami) to explain how she does her job, and how the field has changed over the years with new technology and discoveries. She’s clinical but never dull or dry. She has a slightly dark sense of humor, but never comes across as callous or uncaring. It’s obvious she cares about her subjects, but she’s also a professional there to do a job. Other chapters deal with her reaction to her own father’s death, how having an intimate knowledge of the human body affected her view of his illness and eventual demise.
Black’s time in Kosovo accounts for quite a bit of the material here, and it’s what I struggled with the most. You can spend all day telling me about gastric juices and I’m fine, but the descriptions of civilian bodies blown apart by RPGs and their relatives trying to find all the pieces for identification and burial — that wrecked me. Her role in identifying those bodies, both to give the family peace of mind as well as information for the authorities, was extremely important, and I commend her for having the strength to do so.