I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Death Attracts Us

Stephen Dunne

All the Living and the Dead: A Personal Investigation into the Death Trade, by Hayley Campbell, Bloomsbury, 288 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1526601391

According to Neal Smither, whose company, Crime Scene Cleaners, Inc, does the sort of things many readers might prefer not to know about, three objects are almost always present after a murder:
1          Porn, or some kind of porn paraphernalia
2          An inebriant of some kind
3          A weapon

According to Jerry Givens, who used to kill people for a living, botched executions are often the result of poor sponge selection. And according to Clare Beesley, who helps people cope with the trauma of delivering already-dead and soon-to-be-dead babies, tiny knitted hats serve to protect the eyes – but really the hearts – of bereaved parents.

Hayley Campbell has persuaded people who work in the death trade – mostly based either in the US or the UK ‑ to tell her such stories. She has also encouraged them to tell her their stories: what they do, why they do it and how they got into doing it in the first place. These lesser known professionals do not crave such attention, but they do deserve it. Campbell’s achievement is to have portrayed them, from her perspective, with an appropriate mixture of colour and shade. As she puts it, just like those “childhood bedroom ceilings stickered with stars, you have to turn the light off to see the glow”. All the Living and the Dead is as much about the glow as it is about the darkness that makes it possible.

For reasons that become obvious as soon as you think about the post-mortem life, the glow is usually cold. There’s an embalmer. There are gravediggers. There’s even a cryonics institute. In an early visit to a mortuary we meet Adam, whose dead body she helps undress, under the watchful eye of Aaron. She mentions to Aaron how cold Adam seems and immediately feels stupid. But Aaron is reassuring. Such warmth signifies life.

We again find this warmth in Terry Regnier, director of anatomical services at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic, who transforms donated bodies into research objects. His work requires clinical detachment: you can’t be wondering about the person whose body you’re taking apart and putting back together. But his work also rewards humility: he recognises the generosity of the donors, as well as the value of his transforming them, so that others might live. Standing next to the freezer, Campbell is heartened by the fact that everybody that was there – the dead, the doctor and their documenter – was there because they wanted to be.

A certain kind of reader will be naturally drawn towards that chill. Just like Campbell, they knew about rotten.com and found their cynical disaffection described for them in Susan Sontag’s 2003 essay-book Regarding the Pain of Others. But unlike Campbell, they haven’t put in any of the journalistic work. Such spectators (Sontag’s term) will find much here to test their affectless edginess. They’ll read that William Burke and William Hare used to murder people for a surgeon based at the University of Edinburgh’s school of medicine. That Jeremy Bentham’s real head is purple and usually locked in a cupboard. And that coffins made of wicker and cardboard create messy work for crematorium operators.

This book isn’t only for such spectators, however. The details are often gruesome and occasionally overwhelming but Campbell’s inquisitive approach is ultimately sympathetic. Perhaps a global pandemic has prepared the world’s cowards (also Sontag’s term) for a compassionate portrayal of death and dying’s many professionals. Here, the sight of microbes overcoming human life is “almost luminous”, the smell of death has become “instantly recognisable” and the sound of the living now seems “unbelievably loud”. Death comes to Campbell in a variety of professional forms, and through a variety of sensory channels, but she is careful to avoid the sort of gratuitous luridness which characterises this review. So when Dr Philip Gore (yep) permits her to witness the embalming of a dead body she is thankful, promising him that:

I won’t turn it into some horror story, which is something almost everyone I’ve approached for this book has feared  …journalists and editors have been sensationalising those who work with the dead for as long as anyone can remember.

About a third of the way through this book, a man whose job description is disaster victim identifier asks her whether anybody has given her a good answer to the question of why they do what they do. She tells him that they are all trying to help and that they are all doing what they believe is right. But there is an exception and we have already met him. Most of the people interviewed here speak of how their work returns dignity to the dead but Neal Smither tells her that it is his job to remove their very traces from the world. Twenty-two years in, he no longer seems to believe in the value of his calling. Instead, he promotes his business through an Instagram feed and has a licence plate that reads HMOGLBN. He tells her of his disgust for his clients, for the messes they’ve left behind, and for the vultures who turn up claiming to have loved them. It is Neal that has Campbell mostly thinking of numbness and cynicism, remembering rotten.com, and reaching for her Sontag.

But it didn’t always seem so grim. Neal once heard himself called to the death trade by something bigger than himself. His vocational “epiphany” (Campbell’s term) came while watching Pulp Fiction as a twenty-something high-school dropout. Whereas more or less everyone else wanted to follow in the footsteps of Quentin Tarantino, Neal emulated the morbid problem-solver Winston Wolfe, memorably played by Harvey Keitel. Life then imitated art, largely because of Neal’s characteristic stubbornness and his tireless salesmanship. Now he just eagerly awaits his retirement.

Campbell goes to meet an executioner in a restaurant where she wonders why “would a person take that job and keep it?”. Lobster is on the menu but Campbell cannot bring herself to choose a victim and decides to eat something else. They are barely back in their seats when Jerry Givens, who executed twenty-five people by electric chair and another thirty-seven by lethal injection, tells her that it was God who required him to kill people. Campbell isn’t having any of that either. She thinks the “God made me do it” argument is an excuse not to think. So she probes Jerry further but he meets her incredulity with patience. The discussion progresses and Campbell eventually finds Givens pitying her unwillingness to face the truth.

‘Listen,’ he says, cutlery in his fists, resting on the edge of the table. He’s not angry, he’s chuckling at the obviousness of it all, at the naivety of me. ‘I didn’t kill nobody for myself,’ he smiles serenely. ‘You was gonna be killed anyway … It’s suicide, sweetheart. It is.’

Tony Bryant, who used to work in a crematorium’s garden and now works in its basement, tells Campbell that what he has seen over the course of his career makes it hard to understand the very religious: “How can they believe in that when this is happening?”. And yet Jerry Givens believes not only in his God but also in Virginia’s justice system. Campbell struggles to accept that he is telling her what he really thinks: “What does he do when he wakes in the middle of the night and all he’s got is himself?”, she asks us to wonder.

As for Clare Beesley, the bereavement midwife, Campbell wonders again why anybody interested in becoming a midwife would “train for a job so joyful – at least from the outside – only to specialise in its bleakest moments”. How can anybody put themselves in front of such tragedy, as a matter of course, without becoming damaged? Infants who have passed on cannot be brought back but those they’ve left behind must still be cared for. Clare is responding both to a truth that we’d rather not face as well as to an absence that can never be filled. For just as there is no correct way of accepting such loss, neither is there any correct way of initiating such acceptance. She says that it has become crucial for her to do something, despite the balefulness of these situations and perhaps even because of it. In a world from which both gods and meaning seem to have withdrawn, Clare’s words sound like quiet blessings.

So what calls a journalist to write about those who work with death? The crematorium worker, Tony Bryant, asks her whether the work she is doing gets her down. She tells him that down isn’t really the right word, that she realises she is only a visitor to these worlds, and that what sticks with her isn’t so much the sadness, “but the stories of people doing the good and right thing even though no one will notice”. We’re back to that play on the light and to the difference between craving attention and deserving it.

Later on, reflecting on two blown deadlines that could well be the result of post-traumatic stress, Campbell comes to South Wales to sit down with former detective sergeant Anthony Mattick. They swap stories over a few beers, and then over a Chinese meal. She tells him some of the things she’s seen while researching the book, and he quickly recognises her for the insider that she has become:

I’m not taking the piss. You’re asking me what sticks with me, and you’ve already got things in you. I don’t mean to turn it on you, but that’s what it is. I’m surprised you haven’t gone through six bottles on your own! And you’re asking me questions? You’re already there, mate. You have, um, gone for it.

This personal investigation into the death trade isn’t simply a collection of stories about lesser regarded professions. It is also an act of personal transformation. In bearing witness to some of the many forms of work that death requires, Campbell herself has been changed. She starts off asking her respondents to answer her questions and she ends up interrogating herself. In this, she invites us to question our own limits. Because what do you do with the knowledge that the opening of a baby’s skull can be likened to the blossoming of a five-petal flower?


Stephen Dunne teaches at the business school of the University of Edinburgh.



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