All That Remains

All That Remains: A Life in Death is written by the renowned forensic anthropologist Sue Black, on death, mortality, and solving crimes.

I read most of this book during my transatlantic flight. There was a shortage of tissues. I was acutely aware of that constraint and exercised great self-control particularly while reading her personal accounts of Deaths Up Close and Personal. In any case, it would be awfully inappropriate to weep after spending a few weeks in England and rearming myself with the good old English stiff-upper-lip culture.

If you were to read this book privately, throw a couple of boxes of tissues in your shopping list while you are adding this book to the basket. That said, there are many wonderful passages, whether the writings or the stories or the combined effect of both, which brought me hearty laughter. Overall speaking, yes, the book is about death, but not the kind from the front to the end full of heart-wrenching sadness.

I personally think death is not discussed enough. It is deemed a bad topic, spoiling the occasions. It is as if thinking about our own death might bring us closer to it, or thinking about the death of someone else casting a curse on the person. This book is very forthright on death and mortality, and is full of compassion. I enjoyed reading it.

Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live. —— Norman Cousins

There is no comfort to be had from soft words spoken at a safe distance.

…and it is the one event of our lives that we know with absolute certainty is going to happen to every single one of us. This by no means diminishes our sadness and grief when it happens to someone close to us, of course, but its inevitability demands an approach that is both practical and realistic. Since we can’t influence the creation of our lives, and their end is unavoidable, perhaps we should be focusing on what we can regulate: our expectations of the distance between them. Perhaps it is this we should be trying to manage more effectively by measuring, acknowledging and celebrating its value rather than its duration.

While longer lives are for the most part to be celebrated, I do wonder at times if, in striving to stay alive for as long as possible at all costs, all we are in fact doing is prolonging our dying.

Writing about her first experience of a dissecting room:

It is one of those moments nobody forgets because it assaults every single sense….It is also an experience that immediately challenges your perceptions of yourself and others. You feel very small and insignificant when it dawns on you that here is someone who, in life, made the choice to give themselves in death to allow others to learn. It is a noble deed that has never lost its poignancy for me. If ever I lose sight of the miracle of that gift, it will be time to hang up my scalpel and do something else.

What makes us human? One of my favourite definitions is: ‘Humans belong to the group of conscious beings that are carbon-based, solar system-dependent, limited in knowledge, prone to error and mortal.’

The ‘conscious’ aspect of being human is perhaps our most defining characteristic. This centres on our knowledge of ‘self’ – the almost unique ability to display introspection, and thereby to recognise ourselves as separate individuals from others.

Researchers believe that a sense of identity is a manifestation and extension of the maturation of the concept of self which allows us to develop an intimate and intricate society. It enables us, to a certain degree, to express individuality, and perhaps helps others to tolerate it, by permitting us to both promote and display who we are, who we want to be and what we choose to stand for. Thus we can actively draw like-minded people around us and repel those with whom we do not, or do not wish to, identify. This freedom of individuality, and indeed its suppression, gives humans a unique capability and opportunity to play with their identity and to manipulate, or even change, the perception, portrayal and concept of ‘self’.

‘If life must not be taken too seriously, then so neither must death’  —— Samuel Butler

when the animation of the person we were is stripped out of the vessel we have used to pilot our way through life, it leaves little more than an echo or a shadow in the physical world.

Fear of death is often a justifiable fear of the unknown; of circumstances beyond our personal control which we cannot know and for which we cannot prepare….‘It is the accompaniments of death that are frightful rather than death itself.’ Yet the control that we like to think we have over our lives is often an illusion. Our greatest conflicts and barriers exist in our minds and in the way we deal with our fears. It is pointless even to try to control that which cannot be controlled. What we can manage is how we approach and respond to our uncertainties.

‘Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory’  —— Theodor Seuss Geisel

‘The measure of life is not its duration, but its donation’  —— Peter Marshall

…grief works in two primary ways and we oscillate between them. Their ‘dual process’ model of grief defines these as ‘loss-oriented’ stres-sors, where we are focused on our pain, and ‘restoration-oriented’ coping mechanisms involving activities that distract us from it for a while. All we can hope for is that the periods of paralysing, overwhelming grief become less frequent. But living with loss is personal to all of us and has no predetermined path or timeline.

Sometimes we forget that a simpler life has its benefits. So many of the news stories we follow are in truth of limited interest, and have no direct impact on our daily lives, yet we still want to know every last detail. We absorb most of it passively, even dispassionately, and I do fear that information fatigue is in danger of leaving us with the sense that the world holds little that can surprise us.

‘Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals’

….I would be just as delighted to be articulated and hung up in the dissecting room, or in our forensic anthropology teaching lab, so that I can continue to teach there long after I have stopped functioning. As bones have a very long shelf life, I could be hanging around for centuries, whether my students like it or not. If I achieve my aim, I will never really die, because I will live on in the minds of those who learn anatomy and fall in love with its beauty and logic, just as I did. This is the kind of immortality we can all aspire to achieve in our own spheres.

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