Mortal Remains: Death in Early America

Mortal Remains: Death in Early America, edited by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein, publishes twelve papers delivered at a symposium held at the University of Tulsa in April 2001. Their common thread is “individual and community experiences with death during the formative period in America’s modern history, 1620–1860” (p. 1). The authors—ten historians and two literary critics—identify a wide range of approaches: exploring diaries and personal correspondence, decoding funeral and mourning rituals, addressing controversies over the disposal of human remains, and reading the complex meanings in works of fiction, political iconography, and war stories. Though most essays will prove valuable to scholars working on such specific topics as early American epidemics, history and memory in the early republic, and the rural cemetery movement, the major strength of the volume lies in its broad sampling of approaches to the cultural history of death in early America.

Part 1, “Mortality for the Masses,” opens with Laura M. Stevens, “The Christian Origins of the Vanishing Indian,” which uses early New England missionary writings to explore the “tension between the desire to save Indians”—in reports of exemplary Christian Indian deaths”—and fascination with their demise” (p. 19), in triumphant treatments of Anglo-American slaughter of Indians. This tension, she argues, shaped the earliest emergence of “the trope of the vanishing Indian” (p. 25) that legitimated territorial conquest for the next two centuries. “A Tale of Two Cities: Epidemics and the Rituals of Death in Eighteenth-Century Boston and Philadelphia,” by Robert V. Wells, assesses the disruption of the normal social rituals surrounding death during three major epidemics. This argument is best served by the discussion of Elizabeth Drinker’s experience during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, which demonstrates that “in times of epidemics, when faced with often fearsome, and occasionally unfamiliar causes of death, community solidarity could easily deteriorate” (p. 67).

By Karen Halttunen

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