On Hayley Campbell’s “All the Living and the Dead”
Our culture has an indirect fascination with death even though most people don’t want to talk about it: anyone Law and order spinoffs, murder mysteries, true crime podcasts (my favorite murder has 35 million downloads per month, as of 2020). Campbell tackles the subject by curating stories and interviews with workers in the “death industry”. Beyond the gravedigger and embalmer, she approaches her subjects with kindness and humor, shedding light on an industry that will always be in demand. She also clarifies that by seeing death as an inevitable truth of life, we are better able to define and value life itself. Campbell shows that death workers are an essential part of daily life, linked to many areas of civil society (e.g. the death penalty), reproductive health (e.g. bereavement midwives ) and futurism (for example, cryogenic freezing).
Campbell details the work of Anatomical Pathology Technologist (APT) Lara-Rose Iredale, whose job is to help pathologists determine the cause of death. Inside the morgue at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, Iredale and Campbell meet for the second time, the first being the funeral industry awards ceremony at which Iredale was selected APT of the year. She describes her job as “corpse servant” and has a tattoo of a tarot card on each thigh, one of “DEATH” and the other of “JUDGMENT”. In addition to assisting with autopsies, APTs attend to families when bodies are identified, liaise with funeral homes, and complete the necessary paperwork for each death. Iredale also works with trainee physicians, a group Campbell discusses in a chapter discussing the director of anatomical services at the Mayo Clinic. As a tech, Iredale shows trainees “the reality of a diagnosis: what it really means to tell someone they have cancer, what cirrhosis of the liver looks like, what obesity means to your cramped organs and the visually shocking fact that ribcages stay the same size no matter how tall you are.
Campbell follows Iredale through an autopsy, from cracking the ribcage to opening the abdominal cavity, enduring as she ‘picks up the loose pieces of shit around the rectum, inside the cavity […] A nugget falls off the edge and remains precariously near my boot for the next three hours. Far more traumatic is her experience of seeing a dead baby undergo an autopsy in a pediatric pathology ward. Once the investigation into the cause of death has been completed, the baby must be bathed, like all pathological subjects, in a blue plastic bathtub. As the small body sinks into the water, Campbell feels the need to save him even though she knows he is already dead. Although Iredale praises Campbell for “not having to go out at any time” during her observation day, she later has nightmares of babies lying in rows outside her bedroom window and spends the next three weeks in bed.
In the next chapter, Campbell’s thoughts return to infant mortality when she interviews a bereaved midwife, Clare Beesley, who only delivers dead or dying babies. Beesley explains that the ward she works in has a separate entrance from the maternity ward, which is filled with the cries associated with live births. According to Campbell, one in four pregnancies in the UK result in death during gestation or shortly after birth. In the United States, the CDC calculates five deaths per 1000 live births in 2019, the most recent year’s data was available, but this figure seems to omit babies who live briefly outside the mother’s body, let alone the miscarriage rate, which is not tracked. The populations of each country are however quite different, as is their respective access to health care.
Beesley defines his work as “watching[ing] after a family as they experience the most devastating time of their lives. To help process her own grief, she creates memory boxes for the bereaved, often including photos to prove that the loss happened, that greeting, and that parting in one breath. Mourning cannot happen “without the purpose of seeing, [if] you’re still trapped in unbelief. Beesley explains that, in the past, it was common to remove the dead baby from the mother without any contact or comfort, in the belief that seeing it would upset her. Although this attitude is still common, with some family members asking that the mother not have contact with the deceased child, Beesley has years of experience and empathy for both parties: “They don’t want see someone they love in […] pain […] and they think that taking away what happened takes away the pain. But this is not the case. Campbell points to a 2016 study from the University of Michigan Medical School on the level of PTSD and depression among bereaved mothers. The study was unable to conclude whether holding a baby had an effect on the likelihood of depression or higher rates of PTSD, as many said they were not given the opportunity to hold their baby. child.
Campbell strikes a lighter note in his chapter on a London death mask sculptor, Nick Reynolds, whose father was the mastermind of the Great Train Robbery. Death masks, she writes, “have been the realm of kings and pharaohs, used in the making of effigies so that dead royalty might journey to their land and people might pay their last respects to an imperishable leader.” , but they were also once “an artist’s reference tool before the invention of photography”, created “from dead strangers in the hope of one day identifying them”. Campbell here refers to Camus as owner of a copy of the most famous death mask in modern history, that of Resusci Anne, who became the face of the CPR training doll Reynolds, the only commercially working person in the UK who casts faces of the dead, explains the history of the practice, including its links to animism, the belief that through concentration one can summon a person’s spirit into an object.
Reynolds’ customers are mostly widows who ordered their late husband’s masks. Most are not rich, despite the price tag of around $3,000. The masks capture a moment in time shortly after death, the culmination of a life lived. As Reynolds puts it, the bereaved have “succeeded in saving a part of themselves that will not become worm food or ashes.” Often he is called upon to make a mask weeks after the death of the deceased, either because an autopsy was required or because a drawn-out trial left them in a mortuary freezer. Reynolds pinches, folds, smooths and sculpts the remains into an image of what they might have looked like right after they died. The job of creating a mask involves pouring blue alginate, the same liquid used by dentists to make impressions, onto the face and letting it sit for 20 minutes, then filling the mold with plaster and chisel out any changes after curing. Finally, the mold is filled with polyurethane resin mixed with metal powder, creating multiple layers that form an incorruptible bronze face.
The book’s most heartbreaking chapter follows a Virginia executioner, Jerry Givens. Campbell takes great pains to humanize Givens, a prison worker who oversaw 62 executions and investigated botched executions in states across the country. Givens explains his reasoning for choosing to do this kind of work: “I prepared a guy for his next phase of life […] [M]y thing is to prepare yourself. How do you prepare to be killed? I studied him, I talked to him, I prayed with him. Because it’s his last everything. According to Givens, death is not the end because a higher power supersedes the power of the state.
Campbell points out that the official manner of death listed on an executed inmate’s death certificate is homicide. As David R. Dow, founder of Texas’ oldest Innocence Project, wrote, “[T]The machinery of death cannot function without human hands to turn the dials. In 62 cases, these hands were those of Givens. Rather than accept the homicide verdict, Givens rationalized his role by equating the deaths with suicides, believing that the inmates made choices that ultimately resulted in their own execution. But he ultimately lost faith in forensic accuracy when a death row inmate was released on the basis of DNA evidence nine days after he met Givens in his death chamber. Campbell notes that the death penalty in Virginia was abolished in March 2021, less than a year after the death of Givens, who contracted COVID-19 while singing in his church choir.
The 12 stories of death industry professionals described in this book are varied and richly crafted, and that’s reason enough to read them. “The death machine works,” writes Campbell, “because each cog concentrates on its single patch […] It’s a series of people, connected in their industry, disconnected in their roles. She ends the book with a quote from William Gladstone, the former Prime Minister of England, which was framed on the wall of the office of an employee of Kenyon International Emergency Services, a company that does administrative cleaning after accidents. plane crashes and bombings: “Show me how a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical accuracy, the tender mercy of its people, its reverence for the law of the land, and its loyalty to high ideals. Reading this book because the hidden world of deathworkers is fascinating is reason enough, but one may find by reading it, as I have, that dealing with death deepens one’s understanding of its mystery and, by extension, the mystery of life.In considering our common destination, we deepen our understanding of our common humanity.
Jeannine Burgdorf is a live-action writer and storyteller in Chicago. His essays, reviews and short stories have appeared in The Signal House Edition, New Reader’s Magazineand quail bellamong others.