“All the Living and the Dead” Book Review

The topic of death is still so taboo in our culture – it’s not something most people feel comfortable talking about (and often isn’t even approached unless a person is currently grieving a loss). When I was little, my mom worked at a large cemetery/mortuary (she just worked in human resources for the employees), but I feel like death was a little more normalized in my life than for other children. Still, I had no idea how many different aspects there are that make up the death industry and how many death workers there are that the general public knows nothing about.

Hayley Campbell’s nonfiction book follows her journey interviewing various death workers – everyone from a crime scene clean-up worker to a funeral home director. Each worker has a unique perspective on their job and what they’re able to bring to the families and the dead themselves during their small piece of the death timeline. There were a few chapters that really stuck out to me: the crisis management team member who has worked mass casualty events (and works to identify bodies – or parts of bodies – in events like plane crashes or natural disasters), the executioner who takes on the responsibility of actually enforcing the death penalty, and the bereavement midwife who helps mothers deliver babies who are already dead or who will not survive. These were all jobs that I had never thought about someone having to do before I read this book. There is so much heartache and anguish in these chapters, but also such a dignity and respect that each worker feels for the job they do.

I can’t imagine working in some of these positions but Campbell does an incredibly skilled job putting herself in the action so that the reader can picture what it would be like to autopsy a body or to work as a gravedigger. Her fascination with death and her insight into the human condition makes this book both hard to read and absolutely captivating at the same time (and yes, pretty morbid at times). You can tell she put so much of her own pathos and heart into writing this book – and I think each reader will have a richer perspective on the process of death and how it can affect our own viewpoints after they’re through. Although this book might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I’m so grateful for having read it.

5 stars

*Free ARC provided by Netgalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review*

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