Inside the world of the silent witnesses

Postmortem
August 3, 2007

Death and taxes: the only two certain things in life. But it is the former that provides so much fascination and has resulted in a spate of recent forensic publications. These, however, have featured little theorising, and this is especially true in pathology. As a rule, forensic pathology receives little attention from the social sciences.

This may be due to the fact that those practising the subject do not feel the need to attend to theoretical matters, or that they do not have the time. No working forensic pathologist has the luxury of devoting four years to the contemplation of a single case, as Stefan Timmermans does in Postmortem: How Medical Examiners Explain Suspicious Deaths . But mainly, I suspect, and this is something to which the author alludes, the field's lack of attention from social scientists is due to the fact that the forensic pathology world is closed: access to it and its practitioners is limited. Thus most texts on forensic pathology or postmortems derive from a strongly anatomical perspective. Many excellent volumes describe the mechanics of death investigation; this book instead examines the subject itself and its practitioners.

Timmermans' book consists of a series of discursive chapters that examine different aspects of the role of the forensic pathologist. The introduction explains the process of his integration into the forensic community and touches on the notion of "forensic legitimacy" (that is, the trust placed in a forensic pathologist). Subsequent chapters include examination of the importance of forensic pathology in the investigation of suspicious deaths and how this work affects those parties with vested interests in this area; the significance of assigning a death as a suicide; forensic pathology in court; and the impact of organ donation. The book concludes with a self-reflective postscript on the author's experiences before giving a very impressive reference list. There are also more than 40 pages of notes referring to issues and references.

Timmermans spends a great deal of time discussing the activities of forensic pathologists. This doesn't just include the postmortems themselves, or the scenes of crime, but also the more mundane aspects of the job, such as the daily meetings. What is pleasing is that, throughout his discussions, he is careful to integrate American and British law and practice. This makes the work a more relevant and informed book for the UK market.

For me as a forensic practitioner, Timmermans' discussion of the practice of pathology holds less interest. The descriptions concerning the forensic activities and techniques and his language all serve convincingly to place the reader in the autopsy room (although occasionally one feels that his use of onomatopoetic words are more for effect). The thoughts and feelings of those unaccustomed to such sights are also retold with accuracy - my colleagues and I experienced the same at the start of our forensic careers.

However, what I feel is of most interest and use is Timmermans' discussion of the issues surrounding the discipline itself rather than its practices per se. One captivating example is the thought-provoking discussion of the creation, maintenance and decline of forensic authority and the associated rise in public backlash against the weight of the medico-legal investigator. This is particularly highlighted in the chapter that focuses on the classification of death as suicide. Later on, conflicts between the medico-legal community and social scientists, the public and the media, and the subsequent impact, are also addressed with insightful comment.

Although Timmermans duly acknowledges his standpoint, the book will always suffer from the fact that it is written by an outsider looking in. This may be preferable from the point of view of ethnographic or sociological comment, but it lacks a certain disciplinary credibility. Its perspective probably makes the work of limited interest to the forensic pathological community itself, which is a shame. The title is a little misleading (it is not really about postmortems), but as a text examining the role, position and contribution of forensic pathology in modern society, it is an interesting and provocative read.

Tim Thompson is senior lecturer in crime scene science, Teesside University.

Postmortem: How Medical Examiners Explain Suspicious Deaths

Author - Stefan Timmermans
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 380
Price - £11.00
ISBN - 9780226803999

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