A LIFE SPENT IN DEATH
The work of a forensic pathologist takes an enormous emotional toll on even the most hardened professional, writes Dan Box
The first death Richard Shepherd faces up to in his book Unnatural Causes is that of his mother. He was nine back then, from a comfortable home near London, and no one told him what had happened. Nor was he taken to her funeral. “From an early age I have had a relationship with death that is both intimate and distant,” Shepherd writes. Since then, he estimates he has physically faced death about 23,000 times when conducting post-mortems.
As one of the world’s leading forensic pathologists, Shepherd helped identify the remains of those killed in the 9/11 and 7/7 terror attacks in the US and Britain, and the 2002 Bali bombing, as well as reviewing the post-mortem of Princess Diana for the inquiries that followed. His book peers closely at how he has tried, and sometimes failed, to manage the trauma so much exposure to death involves.
In person, speaking near his home in Cheshire, northern England, Shepherd says that first death, of his mother, gave him an emotional block. A hardness.
“Maybe that carried me into the career because I knew I had that protection all around me … so I could go into that furnace. Maybe it kept me that bit safer,” Shepherd says.
Now largely retired from the world of dissection and criminal investigation, he understands what killed his mother — a failure of one of the valves controlling the flow of blood through her heart. But what he remembers are her absences. Visiting the hospital on Christmas Day. His father telling him one morning: “Your mother was a wonderful woman.” The past tense. “I felt nothing,” he writes in the book. “Perhaps deep down I simply did not grasp the concept of death.”
This childhood inability to understand helps explain his fascination when, aged about 13, a friend brought a copy of Simpson’s Forensic Medicine to school. The small, tatty, red textbook was full of pictures of dead people, murder victims mostly.
“That was the trigger,” Shepherd says. He pored over its pages. Its author, a dynamic forensic pathologist, became his hero. His ambition was to be the next Keith Simpson.
Years later, during his training, Shepherd undertook his first post-mortem: a middle-aged woman whose heart failed her. This was the moment when he first came face-to-face with death, and as he worked he felt his fear drain away to be replaced by a sense of wonder at the body’s intricate systems, at its colours — red, of course, but also green and silver-grey — and at its beauty.
The real trauma, he discovered, was not to be the physical appearance of death but rather its impact on the living. After the post-mortem, Shepherd met the dead woman’s relatives to explain what killed her. As he writes in the book: “I felt utterly helpless in the face of their emotion.”
Trauma runs throughout the book. In fact, it frames it. On the first page Shepherd writes about flying over Hungerford, a small town in southern England where in 1987 a gunman fatally shot 16 people before killing himself.
Newly qualified, Shepherd was sent there in the hours that followed and describes passing through the roadblock to where bodies were still lying by their garden gates.
It was silent, he writes. “The town had been left to the police and the dead.”
Back then, forensic pathologists were expected to be hard-drinking, taciturn alpha males who carried out their necessary work without emotion. Simpson never wrote about shock or feelings. Similarly, Shepherd had a job, and did it.
Thirty years later, looking down from that plane flying over Hungerford, he describes his vision suddenly distorting. Something was forcing itself up from deep inside, leaving him breathless. A dread. A sickness. Something terrible was happening.
“It changes you,” says Johan Duflou, an Australian forensic pathologist and former clinical director at the Department of Forensic Medicine in NSW, when talking about his work. Duflou has seen it in his colleagues: “There’s a trail of broken marriages and things like that … and there are those that do go off the rails.” He also has seen it in himself.
For Duflou, it was the 1991 Strathfield massacre, where a gunman killed seven people at a shopping centre in suburban Sydney before killing himself. Like Shepherd, Duflou conducted