Worthing and Horsham: top forensic pathologist will take you behind the scenes

Richard Shepherd, one of the UK’s most distinguished forensic pathologists, promises it absolutely isn’t a lecture.

Richard Shepherd by Neil Griffiths photography
Richard Shepherd by Neil Griffiths photography

“If I start slipping into lecture mode, please someone taser me!”

No, it’s an entertainment, a chance effectively to go behind the scenes of a Silent Witness-style mystery and perhaps even solve a crime.

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On the back of the publication of his new book The Seven Ages of Death, Richard is on the road on his Unnatural Causes Tour visiting Worthing’s Pavilion Theatre on October 13 and Horsham’s Capitol on October 14.

In a remarkable career, Richard has worked on some of the highest profile cases of recent times – the Princess Diana inquiry, 9/11 and the Hungerford Massacre amongst others.

The author of the best-selling book Unnatural Causes, he has performed more than 23,000 autopsies and is a detective in his own right, solving the mysteries of countless sudden and unexplained deaths. He has faced serial killers, natural disasters, ‘perfect murders’ and freak accidents. His evidence has put killers behind bars, freed the innocent and turned open-and-shut cases on their heads.

His conclusion is that death absolutely isn’t something to be feared: “It is the one thing that we all know is coming. We can’t quite determine exactly when or how, but even when people have had awful last years, it can be very peaceful.

“I am fatalistic about it. We are all going to die and a lot of people really fear that it is going to be painful and that it is going to distressing, that it is going to feel like falling off a cliff, that it will be a terrible traumatic experience. But in my experience, which is admittedly limited in terms of seeing people die, it has generally been a very gentle process at the end.”

It’s certainly something we should discuss more, Richard feels: “Surprise, surprise, in my family we talk about it rather a lot, but I am really interested in the shift in the words that we use for death. So often now, people don’t die. They pass. They don’t even pass on. We don’t see people lying in their coffins in the living room. It has been hidden away and sanitised, and on one level that is not a bad thing, but at another level it means that we don’t have the experiences that prepare us, and I think it can mean that we approach it all with more fear. We find that we just don’t know the practicalities…”

The new book will perhaps help. Through extraordinary, moving cases from each stage of human development, The Seven Ages of Death explores what death can teach us about living.

“The book is a journey through life. I was thinking about my career and I realised there are changes in what and how people die at different stages of their life.”

For Richard, it is also a chance to celebrate the remarkable beauty and wonder of the human body, the way DNA puts all the muscles into the right place, for instance – plus the fascination of how it can all go wrong, how something not working quite as well as it should can impact on your whole outlook.

“But it is beautiful. It really is lovely. When I start a post-mortem, I just think this is amazing, that I am the first person to see this person’s heart, to see their body and to understand their diseases. I can really enjoy looking at the fabulous things in front of me, the way the muscles of your leg or your arms work. I am not religious. I cannot believe that there is this great creator, but I can still be amazed at this wonderful creation.”

For Richard, it did all come at a cost.

He has spoken about his PTSD. But as compared to being the victim of a crime and developing PTSD that way, Richard makes it clear that in a sense his was self-induced over a long period of time, that his was a bit vicarious: “I didn’t get hurt. I was not in pain. It was through observing man’s inhumanity. That just built up.”

It is the two extremes – the beauty of the body and the sheer cruelty of some people.

“I think I have tried to separate the two, the beauty of the anatomy and the utter violence that some people have had to suffer, the fact that there are psychopaths that have no conception of anyone else or anyone else’s pain. I can be amazed at the beauty of the body and I can also be amazed and disgusted at the way some people function. It is very scary how some people can be so violent…”