Perhaps I was unlucky but it seemed that Radio 4 was particularly morbid on Tuesday.  As I journeyed to Leeds I was listening to The Life Scientific, in which Professor Sue Black, forensic anthropologist at the University of Dundee was outlining her rise from a Saturday job in a butcher’s shop to the point at which she has now been recognised as one of the 100 most powerful women in Britain.  This journey has seen her lead the British team that investigated war crimes in Kosovo at the request of the United Nations, and secure the conviction of the leader of a Scottish paedophile ring based upon her ability to identify the abuser in a photograph based on little more than part of a thumbnail.

She is now raising funds to create a cutting edge forensic centre for her University through her “Million for a Morgue” campaign, one of whose aims is to develop greater experience in an embalming process (Thiel embalming) that offers great surgical research capabilities with less of the toxicity and volatility of formalin.  She has put the onus on the thriller writers (through Val McDermid) who have for years relied on her input on forensic techniques to compete with one another to raise funds and it seems to be working well.

Though some of her experiences were nothing short of disturbing they were also moving.  It was a fascinating programme.

Headlingley Cricket Ground, Leeds
Headlingley Cricket Ground, Leeds

Leaving Headingley later that day, the first words I heard on the radio were something akin to “the fluid is injected into the arteries until the deceased achieves a lifelike appearance”.  At first I thought I’d stumbled onto a repeat, but no, this was Costing the Earth an environmental programme considering the pros and cons of alternatives funeral methods to burial and cremation and considering ways of avoiding the release of toxic embalming compounds, dental amalgams and other unpleasant chemicals into the environment.

It was a revelation.  Apart from some obvious options (like burial at sea) it seems that in the future we shall have the choice of being chemically dissolved in some sort of pressure cooker (resomation), or freeze dried in liquid nitrogen then shaken into powder (promession).  How exciting!

Even in funeral arrangements it seems that fashions change but that art will play its part.  Durham’s cemetery is full of unusual tributes to those buried beneath its soils that wouldn’t have been considered a decade or two ago, while just down the road at the Oriental Museum, there are funerary goods from several cultures including the output of those master embalmers the Egyptians.  Mummification has had its day.  With 7 billion people on the planet; even if only 1% were to die each year, that’s an awful lot of bandages needed.


The rocks, in time, compress
Your blood to oil,
Your flesh to coal,
Enrich the soil,
Not everybody’s goal.

Anyway, they say she comes on a pale horse,
But I’m sure I hear a train.
Oh boy! I don’t even feel no pain

Genesis – Anyway (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway)

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