Reviewed by Richard Tutin
It is said that there are two certainties in life – death and taxes. While we are able to navigate to a certain extent the mysteries of the Tax Office, we are less knowledgeable about death. As a society we fear death even though it is part of how life is structured. This fear could be grounded in the idea that death can occur at any time. There is no strict timetable for it to occur.
Fear prevents further exploration, so death becomes something we leave well alone unless we have a fascination for it or an interest in taking up the challenge to find out more.
Hayley Campbell’s childhood fascination with death propelled her on the journey that forms the basis of this book. Her decision to meet and interview those who work with death as their daily companion took her to different parts of the world. She entered the world of the funeral directors and embalmers as well as those whose job it is to prepare cadavers for anatomy students. She spent time with grave diggers and talked with a former executioner who not only ended the lives of sixty-two prisoners who had been sentenced to death but kept his occupation a secret from everyone around him including his family.
Campbell went to great lengths to track down these people as well as others who feature in their own chapters in the book. Her attention to detail opens the door to these areas of life that are rarely spoken about or go on unnoticed by society at large until they are needed. We also learn how each of these occupations associated with the business of death affects Campbell whose wellbeing is often tested due to the often-distressing nature of how some died and how their deaths have affected their families, not to mention the workers themselves.
The revelations that those interviewed offer to Campbell ask us to pause and consider how western society has tended to marginalise death. This includes the workers themselves who often go beyond the call of duty to care for grieving families and friends while making sure that the deceased person’s body is prepared with dignity and respect.
The book is, in many ways, a critique of how we regard death and offers the thought that we, as a society, should be more mindful of these diverse occupations and activities. Often the workers who gave Campbell time and access to their work feel marginalised even though they are trying to smooth the way for people to express their grief while giving their loved one a fitting farewell to this earthly life.
All the Living and the Dead is a thought-provoking book. It is also a conversation starter that may lead to a better understanding of death. As Campbell says we have always had death but have avoided its gaze. Here we have an opportunity to review and change our views and perhaps make death more visible.
Hayley Campbell is an author, broadcaster and journalist. She writes for Wired, Guardian, New Statesman and Empire. She also hosts the Unpopped! Podcast for BBC Sounds and the Must Watch podcast on BBC Radio 5 Live.
All the Living and the Dead
by Hayley Campbell
ISBN 978 152660 142 1