One of the hottest tickets at the Book Festival this week was the doyenne of crime fiction, Val McDermid, interviewing her friend and one of the world’s leading forensic anthropologists Professor Dame Sue Black. The pair enjoy a strong friendship and their witty banter was evident throughout this fascinating hour.
Ostensibly this event was a launch for Black’s new book All that remains – A life in Death. Autobiographical, scientific and philosophical, Black describes it as a cheery meditation on death and revealed that the real reason for writing the book was for her descendants to know the reality of death. “The dead have never scared me, but the living are terrifying”. Reminding the room that we are all never more than 5 seconds from death was certainly food for thought.
Black’s interest in anatomy began at an early age when she helped her father skin rabbits, she then progressed to working in a butcher’s shop and from there an anatomy specialization at University seemed the easiest choice. Her passion for her subject and resulting illustrious career has taken her to the killing fields of Kosovo, Iraq, and Sierra Leone, as well as post-tsunami Thailand. In the face of such tragedy and death, humour and laughter are always important and Black conveyed this with some amusing anecdotes. Anatomists are apparently all eccentrics and often use laughter as a coping mechanism. However Black was keen to emphasize that the dead and their grieving relatives are always afforded the utmost respect.
Latterly Black has pioneered a new field of research into hand recognition, which has now resulted in multiple convictions, although a moving story of the first time the evidence was used in court sadly didn’t result in a guilty verdict – (although not due to the scientific argument).
Black shared her personal experiences of death, recounting the passing of both of her parents. One of the last afternoons she spent with her mother in hospital involved Black and her daughters singing together all the songs they knew and regularly collapsing into fits of giggles. She believes that laughter has a place in death, alongside sadness and grief, and is obviously not scared of what lies ahead. Ambivalent on the existence of an afterlife, Black did however announce that she would be the first out of a room if a corpse ever answered back!
As someone who has made ground breaking advances in the field of forensic anthropology, Sue Black deserves her place in scientific history, but it is her humanity, humour and humility that made this event so enjoyable and touching.