Anthropologist who restores identities to the dead

Sue Black pictured in her book show talk at the Wigtown Book Festival with event host Andrew Cassell. Picture: Colin Hattersley Photography
Sue Black pictured in her book show talk at the Wigtown Book Festival with event host Andrew Cassell. Picture: Colin Hattersley Photography

We should learn to celebrate death according to Professor Dame Sue Black and we should be hugely grateful to all those who donate their bodies to science.

Speaking this weekend at a packed event at the Wigtown Book Festival the forensic anthropologist discussed a range of subjects – from her Scottish upbringing through to the gratitude we should feel to those who donate their bodies to science.

Black’s new book, All That Remains, is the work of someone who has spent her career restoring identities to the dead – including the victims of massacres in Kosovo.

Her work in the Balkans included helping identify the remains of more than 40 boys and men, aged 14 and over, who had been massacred and partly burned by Serb forces. Over the years her work with the UK police has helped identify numerous murder victims and contributed to many criminal convictions.

Despite the profoundly challenging nature of her work, Black sees death as something we need to face up to as a society.

“We celebrate birth, when there is that lovely little baby. At the other end we ought to celebrate death – which means celebrating the life that has come in between. As a scientist I see the body as something that wears out. No matter how many organs you replace or what you do, this is a machine that wears out.”

Despite the enormous advances in computer technology she believes that for students to learn human anatomy there is no substitute for carrying out dissections. She used to tell students before their first dissection that what they were about to experience was “a level of gift they would never receive again”.

Black said: “It is the most incredible thing to do, to make this gift that allows young people to learn.” The legacy is that the knowledge a student gains will inform their entire careers, potentially benefiting countless other people.

This year’s Wigtown Book Festival, from 21 to 30 September, is a landmark for an event that has grown from small beginnings to be one of Scotland’s best-loved festivals. The line up of guests includes fiction writers, poets, broadcasters, philosophers, countryside lovers, historians and many more including Liberal Democrat MP and equality campaigner Jo Swinson and former Conservative Home Secretary Kenneth Baker.