Dig into death with two morbidly fascinating nonfiction books

 All the Living and the Dead

We are not born with the innate knowledge that we, and all those around us, will die. At some point, someone has to tell us. A beloved pet or grandparent might pass into the great beyond, prompting a bedside conversation with a parent about the finitude of life. Alternatively, if you are journalist and writer Hayley Campbell, you might absorb the concept of death while sitting in your father’s drawing studio as he studies the decomposition of a kidney. In the background, perhaps crime scene photos of the long-ago victims of Jack the Ripper stare down from a bulletin board.

As the daughter of the artist who created the classic graphic novel From Hell, which fictionalizes the brutal Whitehall Chapel murders, Campbell grew up fascinated by death. In All the Living and the Dead, she takes readers on a tour of the professionals of the death industry, interviewing embalmers, executioners, midwives who work exclusively with stillbirths and more.

In one chapter, Campbell assists two employees in a funeral home as they care for a body and prepare it for burial, and she is moved by their admission that they got into this line of work because of their desire for a meaningful occupation. Most of her subjects are driven by this kind of loving kindness for the deceased and their bereaved, but not all of them. In another chapter, she interviews the boss of a death cleanup crew that scrubs blood from carpets and removes other physical signs of death from a home. This business posts exploitative photos of gruesome and sad scenes to Instagram for shock value and advertising.

But for the most part, All the Living and the Dead shines a light on those with a tenderness for death, and Campbell is an equally entertaining and sensitive guide to these interesting people and their grisly but indispensable jobs.

Over My Dead Body

It is this same appreciation for the dead, as well as for history, that drives journalist Greg Melville as he explores America’s cemeteries in Over My Dead Body. Melville escorts us through 17 of America’s most notable burial grounds, from the mossy colonial graveyards of New England to sparkling Hollywood memorial parks, all with a perfect balance of geeky joy, deep reverence and a meticulous knack for research.

Melville’s prose is pure pleasure mixed with wry asides. A running theme throughout is the difficulty Melville has in convincing any of his friends or family to accompany him on his explorations (Melville, if you are reading this, I am available), but even among his most amusing anecdotes, he never loses sight of the gravity that still vibrates through the stories of the dead. Upon visiting segregated cemeteries across the American South, underfunded and unmapped, Melville’s writing grows hot and indignant. The same tone arises again when Melville visits Arlington National Cemetery: A veteran himself, he flatly rejects the notion of war providing a glorious death, and he is not afraid to challenge this very American idea.

Though one covers the bodies of the dead and the other covers the ground they are laid to rest in, Campbell and Melville meet in their shared belief in the continuing importance of lives that have ended, and in their willingness to examine the complexities of the death industry. For them, the dead continue to speak to us from beyond the grave. Are you listening?

Literature

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