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
St. Martin’s Press (August 2022)
288 pages; $21.49; $19.00 paperback; $14.99 e-book
Reviewed by Haley Newlin
None of us are born with the knowledge of death. We have to stumble upon a fallen bird fluttering its wings, desperate to live. Or we lose a grandparent, a sibling, a classmate, and someone breaks the news: the deceased, those “in a better place,” won’t, can’t, ever come back.
The author of All the Living and the Dead, Hayley Campbell, couldn’t pinpoint the moment she learned of death. She tells readers she can’t recall a time before death, stating, “Death was just there, everywhere, always.”
Campbell’s father Eddie, a comic book artist, illustrated From Hell, a graphic novel that tells the story of Jack The Ripper and “shows the full horror of [Ripper’s] brutality. Here the author reflects on pulling her father’s failed drawings and brainstorming scribbles from the family’s recycling bin. Young Campbell drew on the back of these gruesome illustrations and even used them for homework. While she doesn’t remember the moment she learned of death, this was when Campbell realized some found death bad and even inappropriate, despite her recognition of it as something that just happens.
Unlike her elementary school teacher, Campbell doesn’t fear death but is fascinated by it. And not in the sense of understanding what happens after we die — Heaven? Hell? Nothing? — but in the process of death from pulling limbs, fingers, and even eyes from the side of the road, the mortuary crew who will attempt to piece together the person again, only to tell families the best-estimated cause of death. What happens to all the body parts and personal items after a plane crash? Some claimed by families, and others held in wait for years. In items of the dead, even fingers, the medical material used to align backs or repair injured knees, in a way, keep the living near. Keepsakes to bones and skin cells littered in ashes. There’s always more to collect from the dead.
Others preserve or tend to the dead, like a death mask sculptor, crime scene cleaners, bereavement midwives, gravediggers, and more employed by the death industry. Regardless of the role or state of decomposition that subject is in, in each observation and interview, Campbell is compassionate and considerate. She catches herself thinking of the people who loved the man on the crematorium operating table or the man drilling into the skull — how difficult it must be to be surrounded by tragedy each day. How do you go home to your family, knowing a man’s family — a man whose brain you held hours before — will never see him again?
Campell is never judgmental but is inquisitive in a way that satiates that morbid curiosity in all of us. Her honest examination, sparing no detail, no matter how distressing, like tending to a child or an infant postmortem, makes this book far more intimate than readers would ever expect.
Campbell will have you laughing with her sarcasm and scrappiness in interviews. But don’t underestimate her haunting and luring depictions of mortality. Emotionally versatile and cunningly creative, All The Living And The Dead reminds us that life is precious because it ends.