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“The Embalmer”: an exploration of our complicated relationship with death


Picture of book: “The Embalmer” by Anne-Renee Caille

The Embalmer by Anne-Renee Caille is an uneasy survey of death, our relationship with it, and the people who work with death on a regular basis. The novel is written in poetic prose and each new section is punctuated by the examination of a different dead body the embalmer has worked on throughout his career. Each body has its own significance to the embalmer and through each body a different story is woven about our relationship with death, the living, and our hopeless attempts at understanding the two.

Whether it be morbid fascination or fear, every human has a strange relationship with death. Some people a drawn towards it, whilst other shy away.

“I am listening to what can be heard: a child who keeps company with the death and an adult who keeps company with the dead, who chooses them.”

p14

To choose the dead can mean many things. In some ways, I would argue that by choosing the dead the embalmer wishes to connect with death and connect with whatever is left after death has taken life. Yet the profession of an embalmer is to also create the illusion of life. With different embalming fluids and stitches, thick makeup and dyes, the embalmer reanimates the dead for the viewing pleasure of the living. Death, in this regard is very much about the living and those left behind. We can only perceive and understand death through the interpretation of life. No one has ever died and then come back later to tell all. The dead in this case are very simple,

“when it comes down to it, the dead expect nothing from us.”

p20

Even though the embalmer makes a living from giving life to corpses he notes that:

“A viewing offer nothing, only takes away everything, takes away even more if that is possible, because from that point on what is left is nothing, a casing hollowed of its flesh.”

p28

Despite the futility of his work, the embalmer is still somehow drawn to the dead. We never truly learn his motivations, just that when he was a child he was intrigued by death and dead bodies. Working with death attracts all sorts of people to it, some for honorable reasons like trying to understand death or to help the living move on after someone has passed on, however, there are also those who have a more devilish fascination with death.

The book talks of death by fire, suicide, murder, accident, fate, old age, water, and everything in between. It is not a book for those uncomfortable with death. The matter-of-fact way of speaking about death is comforting though and I found myself consoled by the uncomplicated prose.

The Embalmer is definitely a confronting read, but well worth consideration. What are your favourite books on death, the dead, and dying? As always share the reading love.

NOTE: this book was accessed through NetGalley and Couch House Books for review.

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