Don’t Forget the Death Workers

Hayley Campbell on the hidden labor after life

<em>The Repentant Magdalen</em> (c. 1635/1640) by Georges de La Tour (National Gallery of Art)
The Repentant Magdalen (c. 1635/1640) by Georges de La Tour (National Gallery of Art)

Anglo-American attitudes toward burial have changed significantly over the past half century: today, most people choose to be cremated, and alternatives like natural burials and human composting are on the rise. Margareta Magnusson’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, about the importance of getting your affairs in order, was a surprise bestseller, and American mortician Caitlin Doughty is but one of several popular YouTube personalities who speak about death. But largely absent from the conversations at so-called Death Cafes (coffee, crumpets, and the inevitable!) is any discussion of the people who devote their lives to caring for the dead. These death workers are the focus of Hayley Campbell’s new book, All the Living and the Dead. Campbell speaks to people doing jobs we tend not to consider: embalmers and executioners, of course, but also crime scene cleaners, mass fatality investigators, bereavement midwives, and others. What makes these people choose to surround themselves with death tells us a lot about what the rest of us lose when we relegate death to the shadows.

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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