Journalist and author Hayley Campbell's childhood fascination with death 'began with five dead women' (when she was young child, her father, comic book artist Eddie Campbell, was illustrating a graphic novel titled From Hell, about Jack the Ripper).
In the opening pages of All the Living and the Dead, Hayley observes that we aren't born knowing we will die. She writes: "Some people remember being told: they have a moment they can pinpoint where life cleaved into before and after. Maybe death came to you in the form of a goldfish or a grandparent.’" (This was me – my first grandparent died when I was about three, and I have vivid memories of coming home, age about seven, to learn that Mum had flushed by dead pet goldfish down the toilet.)
Unlike me, Hayley can’t remember a time before death existed but until she meets funeral director Poppy Mardall at a conference when she's in her 30s, she hasn't yet seen a dead human body. Then Mardall tells her, "The first dead body you see should not be someone you love."
Hayley takes her advice and gets in contact with Mardall. Understandably, Mardall isn't willing to just show her one of the corpses in her care (as she says, "it's not like a museum"), but she suggests that Hayley help get someone ready for their funeral. Hayley accepts the challenge and discover being with the dead is "real and meaningful, like I would be missing something crucial if I put any of it on mute."
This realisation sets her off on a search for answers to the following questions: What can be gained by becoming familiar with death? Is there such a thing as closure and how important is the presence of the body in this process? Why are we so squeamish, as a society, about dead bodies? How can we best support the bereaved?
All the Living and the Dead is a deep dive into the death industry, jam packed with profiles of those who make a living working with the dead, from bereavement midwives to a former executioner who is responsible for ending 62 lives, from grave diggers to crematorium operators, and every one in between and even beyond, with the final chapter exploring those who sign up to put themselves on ice in the hope that one day science may able to bring them back to life.
The majority of death workers Hayley interviews are those at the "industrial end of death: the part where all the ceremony and courtesy of dealing with the living has passed." Nevertheless, her profiles are very human stories, exploring why those who work in the death trade have chosen their profession and how they cope with the emotional impact of their work.
And while this book is a collection of essays about people who work in the death trade, it is Hayley's own journey of discovery - as both a spectator and, at times, a participant - that gives the book its propulsive narrative arc.
From the beginning, I was curious: What role did her early awareness of death play in the making of this book and did it adequately prepare the author for what she was about to discover, as she stood, again and again, at the intersection of wonder and fear? I discovered it gave her immense curiosity and great empathy - not to mention the stamina of a wildebeest. Years of her life went into the writing of this book (and, she jokes, turned her hair grey).
Hayley's microscopic examination of the realities of death - blissfully euphemism-free - essentially becomes an exploration of what makes us human. As she writes, "Death shows us what is buried in the living. By shielding ourselves from what happens past the moment of death, we deny ourselves a deeper understanding of who we truly are."