Burial, Interrupted: Circulating Corpses and the Unquiet Body Politic


A Cultural Production "Halloween" Event (?)


Proposed interdisciplinary symposium

Late October 2009

Draft description:

In diverse human societies, burial and related mortuary processes have long been critical in the making of place, the assertion of lineage, and the reconstitution of social order. Conversely, unexpected acts of redirecting bodily remains carry the potential to subvert normative schemes of place and temporal sequence or to expose hidden contradictions in the social order. This symposium explores the political and cultural implications of circulating human remains, under conditions both of secrecy and of public scrutiny. When does the revelation of relocated remains strengthen, or undermine, assertions of legitimacy and sovereignty? How has the modernization of the corpse -- its technologization, secularization, bureaucratization, and privatization -- affected the aesthetics and ethics of mortuary practices?

In addition to the manipulation and circulation of actual corpses and body parts we also consider literary, artistic and ritual engagements with spectacles of bodily remains out of place. Cases to be considered include nineteenth century grave-robbing, contested corpses in present-day Swaziland, systematic violations of African-American cemeteries in the American South, representations of the Middle Passage, the enduring legacies of coerced mass civilian suicides in the Pacific War, and the popular meanings of Halloween in contemporary North American culture.

Organizers: Mark Auslander & David Sherman

Suggested readings include:
  • Mark Auslander, Going by the Trees: Death and Regeneration in Georgia's Haunted Landscapes, Electronic Antiquity, Summer 2009. (Click here to Download pdf)
  • Cohen, David William and Atieno Odhiambo, Burying SM:The Politics of Knowledge and the Sociology of Power in Africa. (1992)
  • Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. (1957)
  • Gary Laderman: The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883 (1999)
  • Richard Parmentier, The Sacred Remains: Myth, History, and Polity in Belau (1987
  • Robert Pogue Harrison, _The Dominion of the Dead_
  • Edmundo Desnoes, "The Death System," _On Signs_, ed. Marshall Blonsky
  • _Diacritics_ 30.3 (fall 2000), special issue on The State of Death
  • Angelika Kr├╝ger-Kahloula, "On the Wrong Side of the Fence: Racial Segregation in American Cemeteries," _History and Memory in African-American Culture_, eds. Genevieve Fabre and Robert O'Meally
  • John Troyer, "Embalmed Vision," _Mortality_ 12.1 (Feb. 2007): 22-47.
  • Eelco Runia, "Burying the Dead, Creating the Past," _History and Theory_ 46 (Oct. 2007): 313-325.
  • Antonius C. G. M. Robben, ed., _Death, Mourning, and Burial: A Cross-Cultural Reader_