Looking like an ordinary Hong Kong girl, Winsome Lee has an interest that belies her ingenuous looks. Obsessed with bones, and sometimes cradling maggots lovingly in her hands, Lee is a forensic anthropologist who digs up and studies human remains.
Both falling under the forensics umbrella, the scope of works of forensic anthropologists is different from that of forensic pathologists. The latter focuses on cadavers with flesh and organs, whereas a forensic anthropologist specialises in skeletons and decayed and burnt bodies. Taking up half of our bodies, bones chronicle things big and small in our lives: childhood injuries, sex, age, height and race. They are silent, enduring witnesses to our once having been here, and, collectively, the bones of our forebears recount the tale of how humanity adapts to social and environmental changes. Forensic anthropologists’ familiarity with bones means that, as well as testifying in court, they join rescue operations and work wherever atrocities have taken place—they are there to dig up remains of the victims, establish their identities, and hold the guilty to account. While death is irrevocable, these spokespeople for bones believe they can provide much needed closure. When people see eye to eye with loss, healing begins.
Rise from the ashes
Ten years ago, determined to become a forensic anthropologist, Lee returned to her hometown to pursue a master’s degree in anthropology at CUHK. Her undergraduate training in philosophy made her see humanity from a dispassionate perspective, while anthropology stresses putting yourself in others’ shoes. If the holistic approach of anthropology is any guide, Lee’s past will provide clues about how she became the person she is today.
Fed up with repetitive drills for public examinations, Lee, then a Form 5 student, urged her parents to send her abroad for studies. What followed was a metamorphosis: American colleges’ contractual approach to the teacher-student relationship—which lays down unequivocally the rights and responsibilities of each party—and hectic quarter system, with four terms a year, turned the disciplined Hong Kong student into an excellent learner, reader and writer, gearing her up for a stellar popular science writing and broadcasting career since 2016. On top of running The Bone Room Facebook page and penning multiple columns, she has authored seven bestselling titles, with The Sound of Bones trilogy making it to the 10 best books chosen by the territory’s high schoolers from 2018 through 2020. The young forensic anthropologist writes in an approachable style that reflects her personality; the solid professionalism and philosophical thinking in her works, though, speak volumes about a thoughtful and deeply compassionate soul.
During the era when the television show Bones was all the rage, Lee, then in Year 2, took forensic anthropology classes to gain science credits, and it was love at first sight. Graduating from CUHK in 2013, she went on to intern at the Medical Examiner’s Office of Miami-Dade county in Florida and to study remotely, all the while heading to Cyprus, Greece, Poland, East Timor, the UK and Somaliland to exhume bones, identify the dead and conduct archaeological research. A clean freak, she nonetheless remains poised in the face of the need to go to places where there aren’t even toilets. Witnessing all sorts of tragic deaths at work, Lee finds those of infants and children the most distressing. In Miami, she worked on one such case: a couple got into a terrible row and, in a fit of fury, the man pulled out his gun and shot his pregnant wife dead.
“The child was innocent,” she says in a low voice. “What right had he to take away the child’s right to exist in this world, to breathe and to have a heartbeat? What was more important than the child’s life that left him with no choice but to take his gun out?”
The baby, curled up snugly in the bag of waters, could almost have been asleep. In March, as the fifth wave of the pandemic peaked in the city, she went up to an interim flat to take care of the severely decomposing body of a solitary old man; outside, between the door bars was a letter advising him he had been allocated public housing after a 13-year wait. Another man, now a skeleton, was still disowned by his family after half a century for his homosexuality. Like a phoenix, though, Lee rises time after time from ashes to carry on. As she says in The Sound of Bones II: “Most importantly, forensics… connects past and future. The past is what the corpse in front of us has gone through; the future is to take heart and move on.”
A time to love, and a time to die
“Why is identifying the dead so important? They are gone.” The answer to this simplest of questions reveals Lee’s deepest convictions.
“Because of respect. This profession can bestow dignity and respect on the deceased, and give solace to the living. Worrying is a huge torment. Their family member was gone; year after year, they don’t have any clue of their whereabouts. They might say they don’t care, but deep down, they want to know the answer,” says Lee, putting her hand on her heart.
“We act as an intermediary who relays voices of the dead to the living. Bones talk; it’s just that most of us don’t get it. Forensic anthropologists do get it, so let us do the job.” Over the years, she has only managed to ascertain the identity of one-fifth of nearly 1,000 skeletons she has examined. Still sanguine, she soldiers on, sticking to her simple belief: “Everyone counts.”
The fact that we all die one day prompts us to choose what we love and live life to the fullest. Forensic anthropology is a profession that witnesses sadness, as war and atrocities never end. But love is as strong as death: in the heart of darkness, it is forensic anthropologists who safeguard the dead and living—who, gazing calmly into the skull’s empty orbits, decipher covered-up stories. Lee hopes that one day people can humbly learn from messages from bones—and love when it is possible.
By Amy Li
Photos by Amy Tam & Matthew Wu