“All That Remains” by Sue Black

Dead men don’t tell tales.

Or at least that’s what the old saying claims: once dead, a guy can’t talk. Once dead, his jaw won’t move on its own and no sound comes from his vocal cords. He can’t rat out who made him dead – or can he? In the new book “All That Remains” by Sue Black, a dead man can almost seem to scream.

Having a high-school job has been the usual way to go for generations of teens, but Sue Black had a very unusual one: she worked in a butcher shop, and often spent weekends up to her elbows in animal carcasses.

She might’ve been happy there forever but it was expected that she go to college, so she did. She’d thought of being a doctor but she was too tenderhearted for that. Other studies were likewise rejected until Black dissected a human cadaver and developed a fascination with anatomy. That was when she settled on forensic science and becoming an anatomist, tasked with figuring out who the deceased was in life.

Though death is something that absolutely will happen to all of us, we talk about “losing” someone, as if it can be hidden by soft words. We ignore the fact that the longer we live, the closer we are to dying. We make last wishes that leave guilt for our survivors – or we don’t, leaving even more guilt. We think of cemeteries as final resting places, though there are other ways to legally deal with remains. We hope for a “good death” for our loved ones, but we pray it doesn’t come for a long, long time. We forget that someone doesn’t have to be alive to be present in our lives.

For professionals like Black, death brings other considerations: putting a name to a corpse can be a struggle when modern life and better healthcare can make identification of unidentified bodies difficult. War can cause the same kinds of problems; solutions don’t always come. And yes, crime happens…

Read the opening chapter of “All That Remains,” and you may feel as though you suddenly dropped into an accelerated etiquette class, so stiff and starchy is the writing. Don’t slouch. Don’t put your elbows on the dissecting table, but do stay – author Sue Black has a nice surprise for you.

All you really need is a little get-to-know-you time, as if finding a new friend before getting down to business with this book. Relax, and learn how many people have died in the last 50,000 years, which parts of you die quickest, and how you owe Mom a big thank-you. Bury your nose some more, learn about cemeteries, and see how bodies are ID’d in war and disaster. And then, despite the gloominess of the main subject, laugh at Black’s own personal stories of death, DNA, and of life.

This is one of those books that’ll astound as it entertains. It’s a little shivery and oh-so-fascinating. And in the end, “All that Remains” is a tale you can live with.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Sparta, Wisconsin.