Call me a ghoul if you like (a gar-ghoul?) but I have come, late in life, to a deep and abiding interest in the work of those who are employed in the field of death management. I just made that term up, but you get the idea. Funerary workers, forensic pathologists, police – it doesn’t matter who, particularly, but I find the work they do fascinating and I find it helps a bit with acknowledging my own – and everyone else’s – mortality. A Life in Death by Richard Venables, which we received from the publisher via Netgalley for review, deals with a specific subset of post-death work; Disaster Victim Identification, or the recovery and reunification of a deceased victim of a natural or human-caused disaster with the victim’s next of kin. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Detective Inspector Richard Venables (QPM, rtd.) has helped identify thousands of bodies all over the world, piecing together fragments from tsunamis, transport and other disasters to return the victims to their loved ones.
A world-renowned expert in Disaster Victim Identification who was a member of the UK Police’s Major Disaster Advisory Team, Richard’s destiny was shaped in part by his presence as a uniformed sergeant at the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster.
In A Life in Death, Richard tells his extraordinary story, of how death came to be a key feature of his personal as well as professional life, as well as how he coped with the biggest challenge of his life: the 2004 Asian Tsunami, the deadliest event of its kind ever experienced by human civilization, claiming 230,000 lives.
Upon his retirement from the Police in 2006, Richard was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal in recognition of his distinguished service. In A Life in Death, Richard takes us behind the scenes of extraordinary events, explaining with compassion and searing honesty the absolute necessity of his work, his life’s passion.
As well as being an accessible and fascinating read, A Life in Death is, sadly, a particularly timely piece of work. Reading this, as I did, just a day after the terribly tragic Grenfell Tower fire in London and a mere few weeks after terrorist incidents in Manchester and London, really brought home the importance of the work that Venables and his ilk complete, off-putting though it may be to think about. In this tome, retired DI Richard Venables recounts his work in the police force in Disaster Victim Identification, from its early days in the 1980s, when those tasked with the recovery and identification of victims were often required to fly by the seat of their pants, so to speak, to the very recent past, by which time procedures had been created to ensure dignity for victims and their loved ones and the minimisation of mistaken identifications and psychological harm.
In case you should blithely stroll into this reading experience somehow unaware of what might lay within, this book graphically discusses corpses. And not just corpses – putrefecation, body parts separated from their owners, untimely and violent death, mass casualty events of the recent past, the raw grief of victims’ families and the psychological scars that can come from working with death for a prolonged period. So there you are. You’ve been warned.
Having said that, it also deals with these topics in a respectful, non-gratuitous and dignified fashion. I appreciated the tone of the work, and much like Judy Melinek’s excellent Working Stiff, being the memoir of a forensic pathologist up to and including the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, the honest approach of the book allows the reader to absorb the technical information, feel moved by the human aspect of the work, yet never feel overwhelmed by the tragic nature of the cases being discussed. Venables frequently notes the difficulties that people who work with death can experience psychologically and champions the importance of workplaces providing support and appropriate assistance. Throughout the book it is also interesting to note ways in which this need for support has been written in to professional procedure, to ensure that workers receive that which they need.
Some of the unique problems discussed throughout the book include the difficulties with securing a scene or scenes immediately after a mass casualty event and the specific problems faced by those – be they emergency service workers or innocent bystanders – who arrive on the scene first. You will be stunned, I’m sure, as I was, by the completely preventable causes of some of the incidents and the unimaginable horror that one person’s error or negligence can create. Similarly, the book touches on the thoroughness of the victim identification process and why this can cause upset for families of victims, due to delays that prevent families from having the death of their loved one confirmed.
Venables does a magnificent job of hitting the appropriate tone with a difficult and somewhat unpalatable topic. While never resorting to outright humour or jollity, he nevertheless acknowledges the odd juxtapositions that occur within his line of work. That while he loves his work and wants desperately to learn, practice his skills and improve the practice of disaster victim identification generally, to accomplish this requires mutliple people to die in unexpected and violent fashion with some regularity, for instance. Similarly, he recounts a situation in which he believed that he was about to die a remarkably ironic death in a plane crash, thereby becoming one of the victims requiring recovery and identification that he had always worked with.
I was so absorbed by this book and found it such an easy read that I knocked it over in two days. Since I was reading it amid reports of the Grenfell Tower fire, it was a bit of a surreal experience, but by the end I took some comfort in the fact that at the very least, the families and friends of those people who lost their lives in what will no doubt turn out to be an easily preventable tragedy, can be assured that the identification of the victims will be carried out with professionalism, in a way that respects the dignity of each individual, in spite of the shocking manner of their deaths.
Clearly, this book won’t be for everyone but if you have an interest in emergency response and the workings of the post-life industry in its various roles, you might consider giving this a go.
Until next time,