An Interview with Professor Dame Sue Black
By Sarah Morgan
We live in a world where celebrities are treated like royalty, even if all they’ve ever done is sit in the Big Brother house or looked good on Love Island.
Most of us haven’t heard of Professor Dame Sue Black, but unlike reality show ‘stars’ she deserves to be revered, to be known by everyone across the world.
She’s a forensic anthropologist who has done much to further her science and has travelled the globe to help identify those killed in atrocities or natural disasters, whose corpses are often no longer in one piece. It’s the kind of work most of us would be terrified by.
She’s also a close friend of Val McDermid, although she claims, during a chat at Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, that she once “thought crime writers were rubbish! But then I discovered people like Val, Lee Child and Stuart McBride who want to represent my world as truthfully as possible.”
“Death is nothing to be afraid of”
She first bumped into McDermid during a radio broadcast: “I said to her, ‘if you ever need any help, give me a call and I’ll lend a hand,’ and she’s never stopped calling! We once cleared a coffee shop by discussing the best way to get a spectacular blood spatter. But it was amazing to see which creepy people remained…”
Black is in Harrogate to talk about her book, All That Remains: A Life in Death, in which she examines dying – a topic many of us are afraid of – in an attempt to change our viewpoint.
“I wanted to show that death has different faces – scientific, emotional, even hilarious. We think we’re expected to behave a certain way, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if, with our last dying breaths, what we hear is people laughing and singing rather than crying?
“Death is nothing to be afraid of because it’s just the next stage, the biggest adventure. Assisted death is controversial, but I want to control when I go so I can experience it fully and so that it causes as little distress to my loved ones as possible.”
“They turn me into a screaming girlie!”
Black is a fascinating speaker, full of amazing pieces of knowledge – did you know that the pattern of veins on the back of your hands is unique and a better identification method than fingerprints, or that science in forensics is deemed “pants” by its exponents?
But perhaps the biggest surprise is that, after carrying out almost superhuman work in terrible circumstances, there is still one thing that frightens her.
“The dead have never scared me, but the thing that terrifies me more than anything is embarrassing – it’s rodents. They turn me into a screaming girlie!”
Frankly, I’m comforted by that – at least it means this remarkable woman is human after all.
images: CAG Photography