Why We Should Care About Our Corpse

The political significance of the destruction of the dead

Halloween is a good occasion to think about why the destruction of cemeteries is the nuclear option of cultural war. Attacks on places of the dead are aimed not just at the present of a people—a strike against the living whose ancestors are gathered there—but at their past. It is meant to wipe out the history that defines a community.

If Halloween is—or at least was, back when it was called All Souls Day and the names of generations of the dead in a churchyard were read aloud in every parish—an occasion for bringing the dead temporarily back to life, desecrating cemeteries is the opposite: an act of erasure.

The Guardian recently published satellite photographs that document the Chinese government’s large-scale use of this weapon of mass cultural genocide. In Aksu, Anjang Province, what in 2015 had been a large cemetery where the most important Uighur poet of the twentieth century, Lutpulla Mutellip, was buried, was in 2019 bulldozed to the ground and replaced by Happiness Park. Sulinim and Teywizim cemeteries in Hotan, were still intact in 2018; both are now empty spaces now except for a parking garage in one of them. At least forty-five cemeteries have been leveled according to an Agence France Press/Earthrise Alliance analysis as part of the Chinese assault on Uighar culture.

Such massive, politically motivated, attacks on the dead are mercifully rare but not unheard of. In 1943 Greek fascists laid waste in three weeks the world’s largest Jewish cemetery, more than fifty hectares, that had existed in some form in Thessaloniki since St. Paul had preached in the city. The ancient tombstones that survived the sledge hammers went into the paving of a local church’s courtyard and many other local building projects; rubble helped build a sea wall. The aim of these ultra-nationalists was to erase history, to claim that the city had always been Greek by destroying the dead who told a very different and less convenient story. (In fact, until the 1920’s Greeks were in a decided minority behind Jews and about equal in number to Turks.) With the destruction of the Jewish cemetery could come historical amnesia: there had never been Jews there.

A half century later the same sort of thing happened in the middle east. On September 2, 1994 several thousand workman armed with explosives and rocket launched grenades attacked the shrine of the major local saint in the port city of Aden destroying not only his tomb but thousands of tombs of ordinary believers and in many cases exhuming their bodies. In some measure this was fallout from the Yemeni Civil War; but more pointedly it was an effort by one group to destroy the locus of another group’s social being. Cemetery destruction in the modern world, like iconoclasm in the Reformation and other moments of religious turmoil, is meant to strike at the heart of an enemy.

But if such massive attacks are rare—or at least were until the recent spate of Chinese attacks—small desecrations are more common. Thirty-seven Jewish tombstones in a cemetery near Strasbourg were marked with swastikas last December, the same week as the deadly attacks on Jews in Paris; eighty graves vandalized in February this year.  Fifty nine Jewish graves in Massachusetts last March. Small scale attacks on the dead are cheap and easy.

The question is why, in this relatively secular age, is desecrating the graves of the dead still such a politically attractive tactic in a cultural war against the living? 

 One way of answering would be to turn the question on its head: why do the graves of the dead still matter.  To begin with, caring for dead properly is a way of keeping memory alive and of retroactively repairing the wrongs of the past; a sort of back to the future.  New York’s former Mayor Bloomberg, when asked the hypothetical question whether he would be content to leave the remains of his grandfather in the detritus of the World Trade Center may have answered yes without blinking, but relatives of the dead fought to have the debris at Fresh Kills sifted for human remains in order to bury them properly.  The 9/11 memorial is built on fragments of the dead.

In the late nineteenth century, when the bones of slaves were found in cemeteries during subway construction they were exhibited in heaps, shown on newspaper front pages, and unceremoniously buried again somewhere. But when in 1991 a large African American cemetery was discovered in lower Manhattan during construction of a new federal office building work halted; careful archaeological studies were made; and African American Burial Site Memorial was built on the sites.  The long-dead bodies of slaves were given back their history and their dignity. Or we can think of NAGPR, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, that requires those who hold the remains of indigenous people pillaged from their burial places give them back to their tribes for proper ritual burial. Artifacts are transformed into bodies that matter.

But this still leaves us with the question why the dead, and specifically dead bodies, matter so much in the first place. One reason is religion, or more precisely religion married to the fact, long recognized by anthropologists: while biological death is a relatively discrete event, for most of us the dead live on in all manner of other ways. They live in memory; in dreams; in heaven; in some in-between place; as ghosts; as souls waiting for re-birth or transfer to other bodies among other ways and places.

The religions of the world have dealt with this cultural longevity in various ways. All Souls Day, for example, used to be the day to pray for the souls in purgatory. Protestants kept it on even when they gave up believing in purgatory. And in Mexico, the Day of the Dead offers a wonderful example of how folk Catholicism is married onto to older pagan traditions of visiting the dead, offering them food and inviting them back for a while. Walt Disney’s charming movie Coco is the story of how a boy discovers the real explanation for why his great grandfather had been wrongly excluded from the family’s Day of the Dead altar and, because of that, had been stopped by the authorities in the world of the dead from returning to earth with those who had been remembered. When all is made clear and great grandfather’s picture is put in its rightful place he is allowed to visit. There is scarcely a hint of religion in this enchanting story of secular magic.

This gets us a little clearer to an explanation although we will never really get there. A dead body, as everyone has always known, is nothing but decaying matter, at best rotten food for worms; not even that if it is burnt. But we—I mean we humans—make-- and have always made—much more of it than it seems to deserve.  The experience we in the West have of the dead as something like how we might feel about a work of art that has power over us because of who touched it, because somehow the person who made it is therefore with us. We feel in the presence of a genuine Rembrandt painting a certain power that would vanish if we knew the picture was a fake or a reproduction. A body has touched a person.  A gravesite is a place where we can, in an impossible sort of way, reach across the great chasm of death and be touched by someone, indeed to bring them back in the imagination.  It is an act of what we might think of as necromancy.

An aura, like that of a painting or something else touched by someone we care about is an imagined breath of the dead that generates enchantment in a secular world: the greatest and perhaps most surprising product of the human imagination as well as perhaps one of its primal sources. Maybe the nearest we can come to explaining our relation to the dead, on Halloween and all other nights, is as an act of secular magic.

 I am led to this by the thoughts of the art critic Dave Hickey who writes of a show in Las Vegas. We watch elephants disappear without inquiring how it is done and we listen to a chorus asking that they be made to reappear in the same spirit. We understand that “the whole tradition of disappearing things and restoring them is located where it should be: in rituals of death and resurrection.”

We simply take pleasure in seeing the impossible appear possible and the invisible made visible. Because if these illusions were not just illusions, we should not be what we are: mortal creatures who miss our dead friends, and thus can appreciate levitating tigers and: portraits by Raphael for what they are—songs of mortality sung by the prisoners of time.

We—we moderns and, I suspect, some of those who came before us, if they could have understood what we were talking about—have come to make something meaningful of corpses knowing that, if pushed very hard, we would have to admit that it can only be done by magic. But it is magic that we can believe without an ironic shrug. We can and do comfort ourselves in new ways in a post-metaphysical age; we still keep the dead present, however tenuously, among the living; we still make and remake communities persisting through time as we have always done.

And finally, we care for the dead because we are human. Our species has always done so. Yes, in many different ways and for many purported reasons but we have always done it. It is how we make our communities through time. And that is why destroying cemeteries is what nuclear war would be to civilization more generally: an erasure of the humanity of the dead and of the living who follow them.



Read more from our Halloween Issue:

The Metaphysics of Horror – David Livingstone Smith

The Dark Side – Stephen de Wijze

The Return of the Living Dead – Slavoj Žižek

The Search for Extraterrrestrial Life - Lynn J. Rothschild

Dressed To Kill - Shahidha Bari

Rest In Peace - Diane Purkiss

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