Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Book Review: "Digging up the Dead"

Michael Kammen's latest book is Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials (University of Chicago Press, 2010). Sort of a macabre subject, but Kammen offers up a wide selection of reburial case studies loosely organized around several major themes, all centering around some form or another of pride: national, sectional, regional, ethnic/racial, reputational, &c. As Kammen writes in the introduction, "Although I will touch upon different cultures, different eras, even different countries, most of the episodes that I explore clearly involve the desire to enhance respect for someone deceased, the variability of reputations, and the complexity of restitution or repatriation. Intensely felt sentiments of pride emerge on multiple levels. And they reveal that the symbolic significance of possessing 'sacred relics,' even in secular settings, has incalculable potency - yet often provides pleasure as well" (p. 10).

Kammen's first chapter touches on the history of reburial through history (but particularly in America), and lays out some points of comparison between American and European trends (which he revisits in the final chapter, noting that American moments of reburial tend to be less ideological than many in Europe have been).

The second chapter highlights reburials of important Revolutionary figures, which (I was somewhat surprised to learn) continued well into the 20th century. Kammen profiles the various scenarios that resulted in reinterments of such folks as Joseph Warren (moved three times by 1856), Charles Thomson (plucked secretly from his grave in 1838 and moved to Philadelphia's Laurel Hill), Richard Montgomery (returned from Canada in 1818), John Trumbull, Nathaniel Greene, Button Gwinnett, &c.

Kammen's third chapter focuses on sectional and national pride, with its case studies beginning with James Monroe's removal from New York to Virginia in 1858 but mostly centered around Civil War reburials (including the mass repatriation of Confederate dead from northern cemeteries, the many efforts to get and keep Lincoln in the ground, and Jefferson Davis' post-mortem journey from New Orleans to Richmond). Next he tackles non-political/military leaders in a chapter called "Problematic Graves, Tourism, and the Wishes of Survivors," recounting the posthumous peregrinations of Daniel Boone, Edgar Allan Poe, Jesse James, D.H. Lawrence, Frank Lloyd Wright and F. Scott Fitzgerald (these last were just plain strange, I found).

Before his final, comparative chapter, Kammen also touches on religious reburials, including the long trend of burials of American Indians remains from the collections of museums. Case studies here include George Whitefield, Roger Williams, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Matthew Henson, and Sitting Bull.

Exploring the various reasons for these historical reburials made for very interesting reading, and Kammen's comparison of American trends with those in Europe (which he notes have been colored by an "ongoing ideological edge and intensity") was well drawn. I enjoyed the book, and recommend it to anyone with an interest in death customs (and/or the slightly bizarre).

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