Digging Up the Dead, Michael Kammen

Kammen’s book is a wide-ranging look at the “cultural politics of exhumation.” While its sub-title claims it is “a history of notable American reburials,” the book features a large share of European reburials and, perhaps because of this, never quite feels like as if it captures a uniquely American slant on exhumation or mortuary relocation. As he says in the introduction, “historically considered, reburial has come to mean a figurative form of resurrection – primarily the resurrections of reputation… it has also meant, with the passage of time, renewed honor and frequently some form of reconciliation.” (pg. 7) Of course, along with those rather staid justifications, reburials are also often the result of baser inclinations – greed, spite, revenge, historical revisionism, political appropriation, et cetera. “Exhuming and relocating remains had … everything to do with the needs of the living. Reburial was all about possession and memorialization.” (pg. 20) Then again, it is hard to see how exhumation could not have to do with the needs of the living. I mean, if you’re digging up a dead person, there is invariably some reason for it (I hope).

Still, though Kammen’s thesis never quite coalesces and his attempt to refract the evolution of social and cultural trends through the prism of exhumation and reburial is sometime lost in biographical discursion, there are enough anecdotes to keep you reading, many of them quite surprising and involving famous personages. Kammen, for those that don’t know his work (go read The Mystic Chords of Memory), is an exemplary storyteller, researcher, and historian. This monograph, however, often feels like a compendium of “good stories” that turned up while researching other topics. What the book offers in thorough, scrupulously-researched, and frequently amusing narratives about the machinations and general hilarity surrounding burials, exhumations, reinterments, and often bewildering post-mortum bone wrangling, it otherwise lacks in unifying theme, trenchant analysis, or penetrating insight. Don’t get me wrong, there are some wonderful stories in this book; if you enjoy reading about general human folly, especially as it involves rotting corpses, then you will no doubt enjoy much of it. Now that I think about it, there is a certain antecedent here to the “zombie” craze in contemporary popular culture. Just as zombies are currently a popular, if ghoulish, trope through which to dissect social mores and political dynamics, reburials and their attendant memorialization, ideological appropriation, nationalist underpinnings, and commercialization served as a similar symbolic vessel in the 19th and early 20th century. Some of the stories here, such as what I can only call “the handling” of Thomas Paine, are indeed flabbergasting; however, far too much of the book is composed of slight stories both informal and sometimes far too elaborate in detail for their sometimes passing contribution to the historiographic theme. The book was no doubt fun to research, fun to write, and is often fun to read, but it lacks much analytical depth other than broad categorization, often feels indifferently organized, and its insights never rise beyond the familiar. That sounds like a harsh summary, which it shouldn’t be. Maybe the succinct way to say it is that this feels like a minor work from a major cultural historian.

What seems most foreign in reading this book is not necessarily the pomp, crudity, or machinations surrounding so many of these stories of reburial, but more the fact that death, decomposition, and interment received such attention at all. Certainly Victorian necromancy plays a part in this – and the instant political reputational rehabilitation granted by death is no different today than it was a century ago – but ours feels like an age in which death is sequestered – curtained in hospitals, stashed away in “managed care facilities” (ugh, that terrible word, “facilities”), dutifully not mentioned. I don’t wonder if ours is less an age of reburials than of unburials. Death avoidance as death undisclosed, perhaps. I’d say we’re whistling past the graveyard, if we’re even aware there’s a graveyard there in the first place. In an age in which we’re informed by text message of the passing of our relatives (and I really wish I were exaggerating there), the pageantry, acrimony, or sheer absurdity that surrounds so many of the stories in this book at least makes everyone – the corpses, the people that turned into those corpses, and the people bickering over and/or tugging at those corpses – it makes them feel weighty, regarded, meaningful. These days it often feels like we can barely be bothered to tip an urn of ashes into a shady corner of the local park. And given the seeming hyper-politicization of so much of the personal realm these days, it is a wonder that burial seems to have largely escaped the pull of ideology. Perhaps the cultural trends of sanitization and a shrouded mortality are a stronger current. Or perhaps historical narratives are simply more easily elided and rewritten when ignoring graves, tombs, and crypts. Nothing undermines revisionism, after all, like having a corpse present. But while Kammen’s book has its faults as well as its charms, it is a vivid recounting of our ceaseless attempts to shape, alter, and recover the past – a reminder again of how history edits and obscures, buries and exhumes.

Chapter summary (for those interested):

Chapter 1 looks at the changing attitudes towards reburial over time, such as the Victorian fascination with mortuary rituals and the mostly politically-motivated repatriations of remains as formative events in establishing, defining, or manipulating collective memory. In fact, the political underpinning of many reburials, both in the formative sense of constructing national identity and the Machiavellian sense of propagandistic memorialization, is a frequent theme of the book and is one that appears timeless (as you would expect). Mid-late 19th century reburials, as Kammen notes, were driven by the “growing significance of sectionalism and regionalism” but the turn of century gave way to nationalism as a motivating trend of reburial. Kammen sees these events as often fomenting or propagating a national unity or at least being the result of popular opinion/unanimity; personally, I am of a more skeptical mind.

Chapter 2 features specific reburials that occurred as a function of patriotism, “sentiments predicated on a perceived past,” “politically motivated exhumation[s],” and “mourning rituals as political performance.” (pg. 46)

Chapter 3 discusses reburials that came about through “honor, dishonor, and issues of reputation, from sectionalism to nationalism.”

Chapter 4 examines the religiosity (and sometimes anti-religiosity) that often lead to reburials and the attendant enshrinement and veneration that were often motivating factors.

Chapter 5 looks at reburial as political symbolism and as an affect of power, nationalism, national unification, and historical revisionism.

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