ALL THE LIVING AND THE DEAD: From Embalmers to Executioners, an Exploration of the People Who Have Made Death Their Life’s Work, by Hayley Campbell
Conceptually, death is mere tragedy. But in reality, it also comes with a particular pain many people are unequipped for: the scourge of logistics and bureaucracy. There are documents to fill, possessions to ship, professionals to hire, ceremonies to organize. Many of us prefer not to think about the mundane details of death, and entire industries exist to help people in avoiding those procedural needs, waiting out of sight until called upon, then springing into action to help protect the living from encountering the dead.
“By living in this manufactured state of denial, in the borderlands between innocence and ignorance, are we nurturing a fear that reality doesn’t warrant?” Hayley Campbell asks in her new book, “All the Living and the Dead.” “I wanted unromantic, unpoetic, unsanitized visions of death. I wanted the naked, banal reality of this thing that will come to us all.”
Her pursuit brings her to the invisible labor that powers the death industry. Each of her book’s 12 chapters introduces readers to professionals who work in close contact with the dead. Campbell, a journalist who has been published in Wired and The Guardian, observes embalmers as they inject fluids into cold arteries and funeral directors as they pull shirts over torsos that have turned purple from coagulated blood. She chronicles the gallows humor of gravediggers who buried their own mothers and the tempered optimism of cryonics operators tasked with keeping clients’ bodies frozen until science can bring them back to life.
Campbell describes the mechanics of these jobs in comprehensive detail and with a measured levity that keeps the dour stench of death from overwhelming the pages. “I didn’t want to see his lungs,” she admits in a hilarious and relatable aside while watching an autopsy at a medical conference. She wanted to see the dead man’s penis. “Everybody did.”
Across her reporting, Campbell poses a core question to each of her subjects: How are they able to deal psychologically with facing the reality of death every day? Most of her characters don’t have much to say about this — it’s just a job that they’ve gotten used to over time. “The death machine works because each cog focuses on their one patch, their corner, their beat, like the worker in the doll factory who paints the face and sends the doll off somewhere else for her hair,” Campbell concludes.
The consistency in their answers may reflect a cultural uniformity that limits the book’s depth. All the characters live in Britain or the United States, an unaddressed Anglo-American centrism that is neither broad enough to reach globally universal truths about death nor focused enough to unearth revelations about any one specific community. This is clearest in the chapter that spends just a few lines summarizing the fascinating traditions of Indonesia’s Toraja people, who “periodically take the dead out of their tombs to wash and dress them, offer them presents, light their cigarettes.” Also absent are communities whose relationships with death reveal urgent inequities, such as the funeral directors on Chicago’s South Side who organize memorials filled with teenagers mourning their gun-downed friends, or the crime scene photographers who have captured images of classroom massacres that remain absent from debates over gun control. The limited scope means there’s a missed opportunity to explore the wide-ranging social implications of death.
Campbell reported and wrote “All the Living and the Dead” in the years before Covid-19 swept through every corner of the world. While some of us are more familiar with death now than we were three years ago, the pandemic, which ushered in a wave of horrors that disproportionately harmed the least privileged, demonstrated that even though death is an inevitable fact of life, all that comes before and after reflects the same hierarchies that guide the living. But Campbell’s thesis holds true as rising death tolls fade into normalcy and the living forge on with a new numbness: “Death is everywhere, but it’s veiled, or it’s fiction.”
Albert Samaha is a journalist at BuzzFeed News and the author of two books, including “Concepcion: An Immigrant Family’s Fortune.”
ALL THE LIVING AND THE DEAD: From Embalmers to Executioners, an Exploration of the People Who Have Made Death Their Life’s Work, by Hayley Campbell | 268 pp. | St. Martin’s Press | $29.99