REVIEW: All the Living and the Dead by Hayley Campbell
A deeply compelling exploration of the death industry and the people—morticians, detectives, crime scene cleaners, embalmers, executioners—who work in it and what led them there.
We are surrounded by death. It is in our news, our nursery rhymes, our true-crime podcasts. Yet from a young age, we are told that death is something to be feared. How are we supposed to know what we’re so afraid of, when we are never given the chance to look?
Fueled by a childhood fascination with death, journalist Hayley Campbell searches for answers in the people who make a living by working with the dead. Along the way, she encounters mass fatality investigators, embalmers, and a former executioner who is responsible for ending sixty-two lives. She meets gravediggers who have already dug their own graves, visits a cryonics facility in Michigan, goes for late-night Chinese with a homicide detective, and questions a man whose job it is to make crime scenes disappear.
Through Campbell’s incisive and candid interviews with these people who see death every day, she asks: Why would someone choose this kind of life? Does it change you as a person? And are we missing something vital by letting death remain hidden? A dazzling work of cultural criticism, All the Living and the Dead weaves together reportage with memoir, history, and philosophy, to offer readers a fascinating look into the psychology of Western death.
CW – murder, suicide, death of children, miscarriage, detailed description of autopsies (adult and child), discussion of executions.
I’ve read a lot of non-fiction books about death but this was a tough one. For people who think they might be interested in it – really read the blurb. And then read the introduction and decide if the topics are ones you feel you can handle and if Campbell is a writer who you feel comfortable with to lead you through them. This book is not for the faint of heart and Campbell lets her own opinions be known.
This was, at several points, a hard book to read. Some of it is gruesome, some is sad. There are parts that are heartbreaking. As I read about details of certain professions, I knew viscerally that I would never be able to handle doing what that person does. But here’s the thing. These people do their physically, emotionally, mentally difficult jobs in the service of others – the living as well as the dead. These might not be happy jobs but they are (though one is debatable depending on your point of view) necessary ones. Someone has to do it and for the most part, the people Campbell interviews feel that they are helping people. They help the living through this horrible time and give the deceased a voice and dignity.
Campbell interviews a host of varied people and asks lots of questions. Some I would never have thought of – such as the man who deals with the bodies of people who have donated them to the Mayo Clinic or the bereavement midwife who helps in the delivery of stillborn or premature babies who it is known will not survive. I learned about a company that is a “…full-spectrum provider of disaster response services, covering planning, incident management and recovery.”
While I did like learning more about these jobs and the people Campbell spoke with, I wish she had not interjected her own opinions quite so much. She basically badgered one interviewee while trying to get him to tell her what she wanted to hear. Campbell reveals in the introduction that she’s always had an interest in the morbid details of death and there are times when I felt uncomfortable in how much she seemed to focus on these – not because the person’s job involved them but because of a disturbing fascination she has with them.
I agree with Campbell that as a whole, most people seem to be afraid of death. She lifted the curtain on several professions I knew little to nothing about and did find details that emphasized the humanity and kindness of these people and the care with which they treat others. But I found that I respected them more than I enjoyed her journalistic style and her “memoir, history, and philosophy.” B-