The Political Lives of Dead Bodies. Reburial and Postsocialist Change

Article excerpt

Katherine Verdery. The Political Lives of Dead Bodies. Reburial and Postsocialist Change. The Harriman Lectures. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. xvi, 185 pp. Illustrations. Notes. References. Index. $21.50, cloth.

In this book, a renowned student of culture and ideology under socialism considers one of the most fascinating aspects of post-socialist change, the politics of dead bodies. She starts with the debates over tearing down and erecting statues of important countrymen. Her central quest is to define who is important and who is not or, more precisely, who is welcome in the new national history and whose memory must be eradicated just like the statues-the material artefacts of memory-are either razed down or expelled from cities. With the change in landscape brought about by the movement of monuments, familiar life settings change. This influences perceptions of the normal and abnormal that constitute perhaps the most important part of the body politic. Dead ancestors personified by the statues are thereby recruited into the service of governments whose need for a dignified genealogy is as significant as their desire to excise the communist past from national history.

Comprising three chapters and a chapter-length introduction, Verdery's book continues with a discussion of the theoretical project it serves. However oxymoronic it may sound, dead bodies are called forth "to enliven politics with a richer sense of what it might consist of' (p. 26). Political science sceptics might note that bodies as bodies are of little relevance here, and reburial controversies constitute at best minor episodes of post-socialist transformation. On the other hand, for an anthropologist a remembered dead body is much more than a corpse. It is a material symbol of history, one of the central elements of a localised universe of meaning, an ever-present reminder (if not a vehicle) of the cosmogonic forces of creation and destruction. Verdery's is an anthropological analysis. She concentrates on the symbolic properties of the corpses. Contemporary manipulations with dead bodies that are exhumed, re-interred, repatriated from abroad and paraded in public are seen as a kind of modern magic aimed at effectuating changes in social relations. Reburials reorganize worlds of meaning centred on the issues of justice, responsibility, suffering, blame and compensation. As a specific form of ritual practices, reburials are particularly effective tools for shaping the politics of restitution, nation building and moral accountability. They are used to sanctify competing claims to power. On a broader societal scale, the manoeuvring of dead bodies in both the physical and symbolic senses helps to rewrite national histories, to reshape the contours of various communities of belonging (model national communities being the principal target) and to adjust to the painful processes of systemic and global change.

Deep social change inevitably ruptures space/time continuities. Reburials help to restore them. Verdery offers two types of cases as illustrations: the reburial of famous persons (introduction, chapter 2) and the giving of proper burial to numerous and often nameless dead (chapter 3). …