23 April 2022

Review: All the Living and the Dead by Hayley Campbell

All the Living and the Dead: A Personal Investigation Into the Death Trade by Hayley Campbell book cover

* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury *

Death is an interesting topic and one we will all eventually come to know first hand. It's a taboo topic in some circles, and too painful to discuss in others but like Hayley Campbell, it's always been of interest to me. As a kid, I remember a photograph I saw in a book of an adult who had died in their armchair as a result of spontaneous combustion. The idea that a body could catch fire or burst into flames at any moment was a frightening discovery and probably the first time I'd seen a photo of a dead body.

In our everyday lives, we're regularly shielded from death and that's something Hayley Campbell wants to change. In an attempt to understand how workers in the death industry cope with the demands of their job and why they chose their vocation in the first place, Hayley Campbell met a range of interviewees in order to produce All the Living and the Dead: A Personal Investigation Into the Death Trade.

In her book, Campbell interviews a funeral director, director of anatomical services, death mask sculptor, disaster victim identification, crime scene cleaner, executioner, embalmer, anatomical pathology technologist, bereavement midwife, gravedigger, crematorium operator and an employee from the Cryonics Institute. The variety of people and jobs was well rounded and each employee provided a new aspect to consider.
"I have met funeral directors who tell me they could not handle the gore of an autopsy, a crematorium worker who could not dress a dead man because it is too personal, and a gravedigger who can stand neck-deep in his own grave in the day but is scared of the cemetery at night. I have met APTs in the autopsy room who can weigh a human heart but will not read the suicide note in the coroner's report. We all have our blinkers on, but what we block out is personal to us." Page 230
In her research, Campbell accompanied staff on their duties and began to experience moments that would stick with her for the rest of her life. While trying to understand how staff manage to cope with the trauma that comes along with their chosen careers, the author found herself accumulating instances that would later qualify as giving her PTSD. As she discusses the most disturbing account of her time - assisting in an autopsy of a baby - Campbell realises that she has immersed herself so deep into the research that she is now processing the kind of trauma that regular staff in the industry have to deal with.

After reading the chapter about the crime scene cleaner, I was tempted to suss out his instagram profile after Campbell's descriptions of his posts there. I quickly fell into a deep dark social media hole for 20 mins until my levels of fear, disgust, repulsion, sorrow, compassion, sympathy and frustration at much of the needless carnage were depleted. I definitely don't recommend it and yet it confirmed I'm unsuitable for that job.

Just as Campbell felt weighed down by what she learned and experienced, I too began to feel heavy and had to set this book down for a few weeks before returning to it. The overuse of hyphens throughout the writing also slowed me down a little.

On a lighter note, there was much to inspire the reader, and when I returned to the book I enjoyed this passage in particular:
"Thinking about death and the passage of time is part of tending a garden. You put things in the ground knowing they might fail. You grow things knowing they will die with the frosts six months from now. An acceptance of an end and a celebration of a short, beautiful life is all tucked up in this one at. People say gardening is therapeutic, that putting your hands in soil and effecting change on the world makes you feel alive and present, like something you do matters even if it's only in this one terracotta pot. But the therapy runs deeper than physicality: from the start of spring, every month is a countdown to an end. Every year, the gardener accepts, plans for and even celebrates death in the crisping seed heads that sparkle with ice in winter: a visible reminder of both an end and a beginning." Page 237
I enjoyed All the Living and the Dead by Hayley Campbell, however most telling were probably the number of books from the further reading section that I’ve read on this subject over the years:
Necropolis: London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold
- Not Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, but I have read Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? by Caitlin Doughty
Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry
- Stiff by Mary Roach
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

In conclusion, I admire Hayley Campbell's courage to shine a light on the often unknown world of death workers and the death industry. It's not until we face a natural disaster ourselves that we'd ever learn of the existence of Kenyon, or undergo problems with a pregnancy to be introduced to a bereavement midwife. I think it's important to better understand and appreciate the death workers within our community and thank them for the very important work that they do.

My Rating:

Other books on the topic of death and the death industry you may want to explore:
Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training by Tom Jokinen
Death is But a Dream by Christopher Kerr
Working Stiff - Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek & T.J. Mitchell

The following is now on my list thanks to this book:
- Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag

Other books already on my radar as being of interest:
- Personal Effects: What Recovering the Dead Teaches Me About Caring for the Living by Robert A. Jensen
- CSI Told You Lies: Giving Victims a Voice Through Forensics by Meshel Laurie

Would you like to comment?

  1. Very interesting review. I'm thinking of reading this book. Which reading challenge did you read this for?

    1. Thanks so much! I read this for the Medical Memoir category of the 2022 Nonfiction Reader Challenge hosted by ShelleyRae. I hope you choose to pick it up.


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