Reflecting on the process of burial in his study of Hadrami diasporas in the Indian Ocean world, anthropologist Engseng Ho wrote, “this simple act carries great creative, communicative potential. It gets things moving.” As Ho and others have demonstrated, burial sites activate communities of memory, anchor histories to geographies, and, in the case of the revered, serve as thresholds to alternate spiritual dimensions. But what happens when proper burial of the deceased is prevented? How do we commemorate the missing or misplaced dead? And what might “get moving” when caring for the dead becomes a site of contestation and struggle?
Guided by such questions, this forum initiates a conversation on the meaning and consequences of death across societies and time periods. It draws together scholars of state and society to explore the limits and possibilities of burial practices, mourning, and commemoration of the dead in cases where migration and distance have played a significant role, in colonial contexts, and in rapidly shifting sociocultural landscapes. To capture the complexity of these dynamics, the forum spotlights research in a diverse range of contexts: from early twentieth-century Egypt to contemporary Japan. Thus, individual contributors reflect on the nuances of social, cultural, and political processes set in motion by death and burial across space and time, in turn collectively providing a multifaceted exploration of what historian Vincent Brown has termed “mortuary politics.” Crucial to the varied perspectives offered up by the contributors are the methodologies they bring to bear on their objects and subjects of inquiry. Though all work on modern and contemporary contexts, the featured scholars pursue questions germane to this forum through distinct, yet complementary, methods inclusive of media analysis, ethnography, archival research, and interview data.
This forum arose out of a renewed urgency to examine the sociopolitical and cultural dynamics surrounding death in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. As images of mass graves circulated in the mainstream news and on social media, and stories emerged of immigrant families’ struggles to repatriate the remains of relatives for burial back home, it seemed pertinent to facilitate a conversation that could contextualize the present prolonged moment of crisis, and that might help us ask new questions as we navigate its intricacies. In a nod to that complexity, the title of this forum is an assemblage of several concepts mobilized by the contributors, as well as the scholars and theories that inform their analysis, among them “death out of place” (Balkan and Núñez Carrasco), “matter out of place” (Mary Douglas), and “death ecology” (Allison). The title names the body that is the object of mourning, and draws attention to the absence of its presence as well as the presence of its absence. It draws attention, in other words, to how place matters to community and how the dead influence the living.
Since commissioning the contributions and their submission, a host of developments occurred to further underscore the need for this conversation. A second wave of Covid-19 infections has taken a devastating toll in India; it brought to light the overwhelming problem of accumulated corpses, as crematoriums and burial grounds ran out of space and workers toiled around the clock to carry out the last rites of the dead, en masse. In the United States, public debate and outrage were stirred around the mishandling of the bones of victims in the 1985 Philadelphia police bombing of the MOVE group. The outcry emerged in the wake of reports that the bones of a child victim had been kept and passed between anthropologists at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University, without the surviving family’s knowledge or consent. Meanwhile in Canada, the uncovering of unmarked graves containing the remains of 215 Indigenous children on the property of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, confirmed Indigenous oral histories of missing children in Canada’s Indian Residential School system. It has also since led to the identification of unmarked graves around other former residential schools in the country, including one in Saskatchewan, where the remains of 751 children were identified.
Rituals surrounding death and dying, which include the commemoration of the dead, were featured in new documentary media and televised for international audiences during the past few months, further raising questions about how bodily remains articulate with cosmologies of the living—living cosmologies, we might say. The documentary film, Two Gods (2021), directed by Zeshawn Ali, shadows a Black Muslim casket maker in Newark, New Jersey, whose life and work throw light on communal norms of masculinity, purification, and redemption amid omnipresent state surveillance and policing. The new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization opened to great fanfare, also in Spring 2021. To commemorate the grand opening, the Egyptian government organized a procession of twenty-two mummies—eighteen kings and four queens, in order of reign—that was broadcast live. The millennia-old remains were transported three miles, from their initial resting place in Tahrir to their new home in Fustat, in specially designed, shock-absorbing and nitrogen-filled cars (individualized to the identity of each royal mummy), a multi-million-dollar undertaking.
While the contributions here do not deal with these recent incidents directly, they address related themes of disappearance, colonial knowledge-making, and shifting practices of what Deborah Posel and Pamila Gupta named the “etiquette of the corpse.” Key to these recent incidents, and a common element across the forum contributions, is the question of which bodies matter, and to whom and in what context. This line of inquiry leads to additional reflections about who we mourn, and how, and what kinds of broader social, political, and cultural processes burial and the repatriation of remains—or their prevention—unveil, in times of crisis and otherwise. It also begs the question: what work does repatriation do?
Riedwaan Moosage, Ciraj Rassool, and Nicky Rousseau respond to this question directly in their discussion of the return and recovery of human remains in South Africa, as seen within museum spaces and among curatorial practitioners and scholars. They illuminate the work of rehumanization that repatriation attempts but often fails to do fully, which in turn further underscores the absence of the deceased. Pamela Prickett and Stefan Timmermans relate the causes and consequences of this experience of what Moosage et al. would term “missing-ness” in cases of migrant deaths at sea and in the desert close to the US-Mexico border, where bureaucratic processes intentionally “keep . . . bodies out of the limelight.” These essays consider how we mourn without the body or, conversely, without knowledge of the deceased’s life story.
Contributions by Shana Minkin and Anne Allison draw our attention to the ways in which practices around burial highlight wider sociopolitical and cultural dynamics. Minkin’s multiscale discussion of the events following the death of a young woman in twentieth-century Alexandria reveals the place of the state in posthumous identity-making, and of the dead in British empire-building practices. Allison provides deep ethnographic insight into Japan’s contemporary “ending industry,” which has developed in the face of what she calls the country’s “shifting death ecology.”
Finally, the plight of diasporic populations emerges in the contributions by Osman Balkan, Adrián Felix, and Lorena Núñez Carrasco, which all present cases of the pandemic’s impact on traditional customs and preferences around return burials. Drawing on distinct examples from Europe, North America, and Southern Africa, these essays highlight the formal and informal institutions that mediate, assist, or hinder the repatriation of migrants’ remains to their places of origin. They further illumine the secular and sacred dimensions and demands of burial in such places. In light of current legal restrictions on the repatriation of remains, these cases urge us to ask: How do we mourn out of place? What possibilities for culturally appropriate burial exist—or not—beyond that of return?