Six Feet Under

And then back up again....Scott McLemee looks at new book on the history of reburials.

May 5, 2010

Last year, the bicentennial of Thomas Paine’s death came and went without much ceremony. It’s always some anniversary or other; perhaps we were just all commemorated out. Besides, even if there had been some big effort to mark the memory of the American Revolution’s greatest pamphleteer and most radical ideologue, media attention would have focused on a fairly sensational topic: the strange afterlife of his physical remains.

Ten years after Paine was buried in New Rochelle, N.Y., his body was dug up by a political enemy and transported to England. (This seems like carrying argumentativeness to an extreme.) The subsequent fate of Paine's body is a complicated matter. Its owner, if that is the word one wants, died in the 1830s. Bits and pieces of Paine circulated on what seems like a fairly ghoulish black market; one story had it that some of the bones were made into buttons. Eventually a number of the remains were gathered up by the Paine National Historical Association, which returned them to New Rochelle for reburial in 1905.

There was more to it than bringing a creepy situation to a close. Even before his death, Paine had been largely forgotten in the United States. His religious skepticism and early support for the principles of the French Revolution made him the most inconvenient of Founding Fathers. But his memory remained alive in the underground of freethinkers and radicals, and giving him a proper burial was a mission for some of them. It was a step towards recovering the truth about the origins of the United States, which were never so pious as some people would have you believe.

Paine’s busy afterlife first came to my attention a few years ago – just about the time, as coincidence had it, that I was reading about what happened to Voltaire’s non-literary remains. They were dug up in 1791, at the high tide of the French Revolution, so that they could be buried alongside the body of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Learning about two re-internments in a week felt slightly creepy. But that was nothing compared to reading Michael Kammen’s new book Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials (University of Chicago Press), which records scores of such episodes.

In spite of his subtitle, Kammen, a professor emeritus of American history and culture at Cornell University, does not focus exclusively on the United States. But he focuses on how tightly linked the phenomenon of reburial is to the shaping of historical memory in the wake of the American Revolution.

The tradition of marking the graves of common people emerged fairly recently in history; it only became widespread in the 19th century. The act of re-commemorating an individual’s life by moving his remains is quintessentially modern -- a kind of secular resurrection of the deceased person's social importance. “Relocation and reburial,” writes Kammen, “or ‘translation’ of a body, to use the traditional, Latin-derived word, are invariably all about the resurgence of the reputation of and hence respect for someone whose lamp and visage had dimmed in some way.”

The concerns of the living mattered at least as much as the intentions of the dead. “Survivors (or members of the next generation),” Kammen writes, “frequently insisted – sometimes despite evidence to the contrary – that the deceased had really wanted to be buried in a spot other than the one initially chosen, often for reasons of convenience at the time. Arguments over where the most appropriate site might be frequently persisted for decades, and in certain cases even longer.”

The most extreme case may be Daniel Boone. The explorer and politician was born in Pennsylvania in 1734, lived for many years in Kentucky, and died in 1820 in Missouri, where he was buried. Within a couple of decades, the Kentucky legislature decided its favorite son should be brought home. Boone himself might not have liked that idea. Given certain unhappy experiences in Kentucky involving real estate, he never set foot in the state again after 1799.

And in any case, Missouri officials wanted him to stay where he had been planted.

Things got emotional, and then they got weird. With the approval of members of Boone’s family, his remains were excavated and transported to Kentucky to be reburied with great public celebration. But first the skull was, in the words of one witness, “handled by the persons present and its peculiarities commented upon.” The new resting place was good for Kentucky's tourism. It also boosted the sale of lots at the cemetery where the body was interred. But meanwhile, people in Missouri grew increasingly annoyed.

As one editorialist put it in 1888, the great man’s grave was “desecrated to gratify a spasm of Kentucky pride.” A rumor circulated that Boone’s relatives had deliberately guided Kentucky’s patriots to the wrong grave, meaning that the real body was still in Missouri. The argument raged on for decades, and it still does. Search “Daniel Boone gravesite” in 2010 and you still have your choice of locations.

The image of people standing around commenting on the shape of Daniel Boone’s skull may sound comic or disgusting, but it was not such an unusual thing to do, back then. Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of Kammen’s book is its reminder of how much has changed about our attitudes towards close contact between the living and the dead.

One 19th century man of the cloth pointed out, Kammen says, “that the desire to scrutinize bodily decay – he called it a ‘morbid desire’ – was especially prevalent among women; some even wanted to descend into tombs, lift the coffin lid, and ‘gaze upon the mouldering bones’ of their parent or child.” No doubt there was some perfectly understandable reason why they felt this urge. Even so, I just don’t want to think about it.

And then there is this description of an exhumation in 1875, reported in a Baltimore newspaper:

“The laborers employed to perform the task, upon digging to the depth of about five feet, discovered the coffin in a good state of preservation, after having lain in place nearly 26 years. The lid was removed, and the remains curiously examined by the few present. There, before their gaze, was extended the skeleton, almost in perfect condition, and lying with the long bony hands reposing one upon the other, as they had been arranged in death. The skull bore marks of greater decay, the teeth from the upper jaw having become dislodged, but those in the lower were all in place, and some little hair was still clinging near the forehead....”

Here the guest of honor was Edgar Allen Poe. At least his peaceful condition shows he was not buried alive.

Kammen’s anthology of “translations” is, in effect, an account of what historians are always doing – digging into the past, moving the remains to a new location, engraving a new memorial. For that matter, it brings to mind the old joke about dissertation writing as a process of transporting bones from one coffin to another.

But it is also a reminder of the final context of all human activity, scholarly and otherwise. In the words of Thomas Paine, writing in 1777: “However men may differ in their ideas of grandeur or government here, the grave is nevertheless a perfect republic.” In the long run, we all end up naturalized.


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