Rodolphe A. Reiss, Simulated corpse, demonstration of the Bertillon metric photography system. Collection of the Institut de police scientifique de l’Université de Lausanne © R. A. REISS, coll. IPSCA
A key issue in the forensics of death is the timing of death. CSI-style television programmes tend to presume that the death under investigation has occurred ‘before its time’ and hence is likely to have been the result of a crime. The overall effect of this initial judgement is to raise the value of the deceased person’s life – especially in terms of its unrealised potential. Indeed, people’s long-term reputations are very much affected by the perceived timing of their death – and the extent to which it arrested an ‘unrealised potential’. Thus, we speak of (usually but not always) younger people as ‘cut down in their prime’. But equally, and perhaps more interestingly, people’s reputations may suffer because, so to speak, they outstay their welcome among the living by failing either to remain brilliant or diminish gracefully. A good current case in point may be James D. Watson, youthful co-discoverer of DNA’s double-helix structure, who in later life has tried to leverage his expertise in genetics to make periodic interventions in public debates that have been widely received as ‘racist’.