American Afterlives concludes with the ritualized disinterment of the author’s decomposed corpse. An archaeologist is excavating a twenty-first century cemetery, nestled in a California oak savannah. She discovers some decayed cloth and carefully recovers the bones within, intact but for a gopher tunnel through the torso. The naked corpse has been shrouded in a single cloth layer “like a newborn baby,” anticipating reincarnation. Beside the bones are a trowel and a “dark brown rectangular object.” Offerings: not to the gods, nor to the ancestors, nor even to the earth, but to Shannon Lee Dawdy’s future double. “My request would include that I be buried with certain artifacts as clues. My burial would become a time capsule, a message in a bottle from one archaeologist to another,” Dawdy writes. The dark brown object is a copy of American Afterlives. It will, we imagine, become the topic of another passionate scholarly project: the book’s reincarnation and a brick in the edifice of the reincarnate archaeologist’s career. Thomas Lacqueur anticipates this project on the back cover, the bit of the book least likely to be recovered in the radiology lab of the future: “When those who come after us try to understand the cultural changes in early twenty-first century America, they will turn to this book.”

This double reincarnation is Dawdy’s own answer to the two questions she posed to all of her interlocutors: “What do you want done with your body after you die?” and “What do you think happens to us after we die?” It also encapsulates a central trend that Dawdy discovered in Americans’ beliefs about their own afterlives. “American cosmology is shaped by beliefs in ghosts, reincarnation, and stardust,” she summarizes. Many Americans believe that some dead endure in the present as ghosts; others say that we have been composed of stardust and will become stardust again after we die. While many have absorbed ideas about reincarnation that circulate in South and East Asia, reincarnation in its folk American form is rarely as a lesser sentient being or into a Buddhist hell but nearly always as a human. “In other words,” Dawdy explains, “American reincarnation sounds like a hyper-extended version of individualism and self-improvement psychology.” Reincarnation is one among many new forms of American afterlife that reflect an intensified focus on the individual, Dawdy argues. The author’s own afterlife, in which the dead archaeologist is rediscovered by her future double who reincarnates American Afterlives as well, appears to be a purification and intensification of this “hyper-extended version of individualism.” And yet…

Contrary to the idea that death practices are merely reflections of living societies, Dawdy repeatedly reflects on her own imaginative practices of death to express a personal affinity with earth, understood as an abode of the dead and a material manifestation of duration and history. “My favorite phase of an archaeological project is when I can tell the crew to go home as we’re coming close to finishing an excavation unit,” Dawdy writes. “I get down into the hole, sometimes with my shoes off. I scrape the dirt clean so you can see the different layers of time more clearly. I take photographs and make drawings of what I see — an accumulation of lifetimes. It is dark and cool in the trench. The smell is calming. You can tell that things are simultaneously growing and decaying. And time slows way down.” The book’s final photograph is the inside of an excavation or a grave, showing a mosaic of shovel marks in its earthen walls. This, we are left to imagine, must be the hole into which Dawdy was lowered during her first burial.

During the filming of I Like Dirt., the documentary short out of which American Afterlives grew, a staff member at Fernwood Cemetery in northern California suggested that the crew film a green burial: a body being placed in a grave sans coffin, wrapped only in a shroud. Dawdy leapt at the chance to be that dead body. “I suddenly knew that I had to be the one in the shroud, in the grave,” she proclaims with mock officiousness. “We couldn’t risk the young actor. I had to take responsibility for this experiment.” She stays in the grave for quite a long time, enjoying the “oddly relaxing experience” of being dead. Feeling the cool hard clay against her back, she may well also have been enjoying an archaeologist’s earthy vision of duration. “If you go back just a little way in any account of history, you quickly end up in the territory of the dead,” she writes. “I recently learned that scientists have discovered that most of the earth’s forests have as much life belowground as above, much of it consisting of a tiny white fungal neural network that connects the entire system. […] I am starting to think that is how we should imagine relations between the past and the present, between the living and the dead.”

All of this expresses a personal affinity with the earth as a living being and a duration-soaked abode of beings with whom we are always in connection, despite our conditioned inclination to believe that society consists only of relations among the living. This view is at deep odds with the sociological framing of the book, which focuses its attention not on the dead but on death practices as reflections of living society. Dawdy’s imagined future burial and disinterment, when taken as a reflection on “cultural changes,” offers us only a predictable reflection on accelerated American individualism. But Dawdy’s burial and disinterment as repeatedly practiced in the interstices of her argument about how American death practices reflect cultural changes gives us something very different. It offers a reverent relation with the earth and its dead and an emptying out of a singular life into a past where a vast network of dead souls extends beneath us: the earth’s duration and its virtual weight. In the same way, the book approaches the imagined deaths of Dawdy’s interlocutors on two different levels. At the level of its analytical strategy, the book understands these varied and inventive deaths as reflections of a transforming “American society,” circumscribed by determinate social relations among humans. But as it ponders their details, the book repeatedly shows these deaths to be expressive of much more, opening living humans up to deep forms of relation with the dead, the earth, and the cosmos.

Dawdy makes the origins of her analytical strategy clear. American Afterlives begins its analysis by invoking Robert Hertz’s 1907 “A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death.” After noting Hertz’s descriptions of an “intermediary period” following death, during which a corpse decays and ritual separates a soul from this world and prepares it for the next, Dawdy goes all in on Hertz’s argument that death rituals are universally intended to recompose a society shattered by death. “Rituals are like sutures that aid healthy scarring,” she writes. “Another metaphor might be that death rituals are attempts to reweave the social fabric, to mend the hole left by the loss of one of its members.” Like others who invoke Hertz, Dawdy takes this idea to be so self-evident that it need not be demonstrated nor proven. To simply state it is enough. A reader who notices that Hertz plays the same role in nearly every other anthropological treatment of death ritual of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries might be forgiven some questions. Was this youth of twenty-six, who surveyed the world of death ritual from the scholarly paradise of the British Museum, so miraculously brilliant and insightful that he discovered universals so enduring that interrogating them would be a waste of time? Or could it be that Hertz’s ideas continued to ring true to anthropologists because they so successfully channeled the powerful sense of the social delineated by Hertz’s mentor Émile Durkheim, a sense of the social that was, until recently, a kind of lifeblood for most anthropologists? For the sake of argument, I’m going with the latter possibility.

The idea that death rituals heal a society fragmented by loss is sometimes obviously true. The problem is that this idea locks us into a notion of the social that excludes the dead as participants. The real is the social — human societies — and the dead are on the other side of a divide between real and unreal. It follows that the analytical importance of death ritual is the way it “reflects” society, giving us insight into “cultural changes.” Dawdy runs with this Durkheimian insight when she suggests that we can identify four phases of American society if we follow transformations in the ways corpses have been treated for the last two hundred years. She gives these phases insightful names: “Homecoming” in the nineteenth century, the “Nation-body” for most of the twentieth century, “Rugged grief” beginning with the turn of the twenty-first century, and an unnamed and amorphous new phase in the present. And yet…

Dawdy’s earthy passion for the fungus-like “historical tendrils” of connection with the past reminds us that archaeologists and ordinary people alike never cease to attempt to communicate with the dead. Rebels against the supposed unreality of the dead populate her research. Her interlocutors are always materializing the dead — perhaps as the tattooed skin of a loved one on the living room wall, perhaps as carbon remains pressed into a diamond, perhaps as ash in a shotgun shell capable of killing a deer — and welcome the dead into their lives. Dawdy’s vision of what a new phase of “American society” might look like presses hard against the boundaries of the Durkheimian notion of society: “a sense of continuity and connection — across generations and with other species […] a planetary [community] based on shared ecological values.”

Testifying to Dawdy’s brilliance as a writer and anthropologist and her wisdom and capaciousness as a living creature, American Afterlives delivers two visions at once. On the one hand, a sense of the wildly inventive terrain of emerging approaches to the dead, reflecting a new cultural landscape in America. On the other hand, not explicitly argued but powerfully expressed nonetheless, a sense that we are always already in the abode of the dead, who form a “neural network” of past relations in the earth below our feet. The earthy duration of the dead is the substance of all life on the earth’s surface. Whether we are at present living or dead, human or nonhuman, the earth is our common socius