Wednesday, 06 July 2022

Every body has a story to tell

Dr Richard Shepherd
Christ Church

DEATH, the unavoidable, inevitable end — and the catalyst for a sell-out event to see Dr Richard Shepherd, the author of Unnatural Causes.

Everyone knew the headlines; more than 23,000 autopsies, high-profile cases like Shipman and Diana and the success of the book — 84 per cent five star online reviews and now translated into 12 languages.

An awestruck Katherine Grainger was interviewing. Welcome to the Henley Literary Festival and an opportunity to meet the man behind the words.

Relaxed and eloquent, the author immediately drew the audience in with his winning mix of humility and humour.

His career had been a privilege, with every dead body having secrets to reveal and a story to tell, from contributing to big data trends — measles is on the rise — to the most complex police investigation.

A chance encounter with a book on pathology helped the teenage Shepherd join the dots between his interest in science and explaining crimes — his Damascene moment.

From that point his path was set, fuelled by a fascination and admiration for the human body and how it works.

His drive to understand and explain the cause of death to those left behind remains a key motivation. Facts delivered with tact and diplomacy, sometimes over many meetings — he felt was the gateway to the grieving process. Also, never obfuscate or lie, no matter how difficult the forensic truth may be.

Over many years he successfully managed to mentally compartmentalise the work from home life, sometimes having to stop the car around the corner in order to transition from the horrors witnessed that day to being Dad at the dinner table.

The audience were given a taste of these mental gymnastics themselves as he described being escorted by the police into the aftermath of the killing spree of Michael Ryan in Hungerford.

Bodies lay where they had fallen, on past bullet-riddled cars and finally to the corpse of Ryan himself. Incongruously, there was humour here as the police melted away, saying that they thought the body may be booby-trapped, so they would be leaving it to him.

We all tittered uncomfortably, unable to help ourselves. Death and humour go hand in hand and were our welcome companions on an excellent Tuesday night out.

Damien D’Souza

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