"Digging Up the Dead" by Michael Kammen


As stated in nearly every eulogy, because a person has passed away it does not signify the end of his or her influence on loved ones, or on the community and society.  It is hoped that memory of the deceased will be an influence for good.  But sometimes death is only the beginning of trouble, the cause of conflict or at least an inconvenience among those left behind.  On rare but noteworthy occassions the corpse or gravesite itself may come into contention, and these incidents of exhumation, grave-robbing and reinterment can cast a final light back on the life of the departed as well as illuminate the unsettled issues of the present.

Now one of America’s eminent historians has examined this phenomenon in “Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials”. Dr. Michael Kammen is Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture emeritus at Cornell University.  His earlier books include “Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture” (2006), ” A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture” (1986) and ” People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization”, which won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for History.  He is a former president of the Organization of American Historians and in 2009 received the American Historical Association Award for Scholarly Distinction.  And in the midst of his research over the years, Dr. Kammen kept coming upon reports of historical figures who’d been buried more than once.

“Digging Up the Dead” opens with the reburial of Jefferson Davis.  In 1893 — four years after the president of the Confederate States of America died and was buried in New Orleans — his body was moved with great care and pageantry to the Confederate capital of Richmond.  Kammen refers to this as “the resurrection of reputation, at least for a while.”  Davis’s Union counterpart also had multiple funerals.  There was a thwarted attempt to steal  Abraham Lincoln’s body from its original resting place in Springfield, Ill.  Lincoln was later reburied within the impressive monument at Springfield in 1901 in a steel coffin covered in concrete.

Among other notable persons in “Digging Up the Dead” are naval hero John Paul Jones, frontiersman Daniel Boone (whose remains were the subject of an interstate conflict between Kentucky and Missouri) and Lakota Chief Sitting Bull.   Kammen points to “a fairly distinctive change in practices that piques the historian’s interest in patterns of sociocultural ebb and flow.  Reburials become increasingly common during but especially after the second quarter of the nineteenth century, a little-noticed trend… During the period from 1845 until 1909, the initiative came primarily from politicians or local boosters, more often than from family — a pattern that was reversed in the twentieth century, when survivors and descendants were more likely to supply the initiative.”  And he adds, “I am intrigued because the ways in which Americans have honored (and sometimes dishonored) their dead are marked by substantive and  symbolic details that tell us much about the values and culture of the living.”

Michael Kammen joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to review this unusual aspect of American history, and to respond to listeners’ questions.

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