literary journalism

Hayley Campbell’s ‘All the Living and the Dead’

Death, as James Baldwin reminds us in The Fire Next Time, “is the only fact we have”. And yet in the west, it is swathed in secrecy. “Just like in video games, the bodies disappear,” writes Hayley Campbell in All the Living and the Dead.

A features journalist and the author of The Art of Neil Gaiman (2014), Campbell set out to discover what happens to bodies from the mortuary to burial. Fascinated with death since childhood, she is interested in how societal attitudes towards death impact not only its processes but those who have chosen to make it their life’s work. “If the reason we’re outsourcing this burden is because it’s too much for us,” she asks, “how do they deal with it?” Would facing death directly make us fear it less?

Campbell travelled across the US and UK to meet 12 “death workers” — from the everyday (embalmer, gravedigger) to the esoteric (cryonics perfusion specialist, death mask sculptor). The encounters shed light on the different ways people choose to hide, commemorate or attempt to circumvent the inevitable. Campbell weaves judicious reflections on the philosophy and history of the death industry into the reportage. But to her credit, she does not shy away from getting her hands dirty, so to speak: dressing a corpse, holding a brain during an autopsy and raking remains in a crematorium.

Campbell finds a sense of vitality from her project, with the memento mori highlighting “the impermanent and unlikely state of being alive” Despite a few moments of grisliness, All the Living and the Dead is never macabre. Gallows humour — seemingly a necessary coping mechanism for those in the industry — leavens the weighty subject, yet the tone remains more reverent than other books covering similar ground, such as Mary Roach’s New York Times bestselling Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers from 2003.

Having managed to maintain a journalistic distance throughout, the subject finally gets to Campbell when she sees a baby awaiting an autopsy, an experience that renders her incapable of working for weeks. She clashes with a former executioner in Virginia on the morality of the death penalty (since abolished in the state). “You knew exactly what you were getting into, when you went out and you murdered this person,” he tells her in defence of his vocation. “ . . . It’s suicide, sweetheart.” She questions the ethics of a crime-scene cleaner who markets his business by posting before and after pictures of his work online, trafficking in gore.

The majority of Campbell’s interviewees, however, are professionals “doing the good and right thing even though no one will notice”. She talks to a funeral director who snuck in ostracised friends of people felled by Aids and two crematorium workers who attend funeral services if no mourners turn up. It’s work that often goes unseen and unthanked. “No one does this for the glory of it, but you do kind of want some acknowledgment that what you do matters,” an APT (anatomical pathology technologist) who reconstructed victims of the London Bridge attack, tells Campbell. “It matters to the families.”…

Read the full review online in the Financial Times

You Might Also Like