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 Weekend Australian - Review - - Essay -

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

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