A Corpse Among Corpses: Transcript and Annotated Shot List
Updated: Oct 1
The following is the transcript and a series of annotations of specific shots in the film A Corpse Among Corpses by Lyn Corelle, and written by me, Sasha Warren. We ask that you please watch the film before reading the transcript or going through the shots, as they are intended to be viewed altogether. Follow me on Twitter @sashadurakov or on Instagram @ofunsound for information on upcoming screenings. If there are no screenings in your area, contact me at email@example.com to set one up or view on your own at no cost. A Corpse Among Corpses is essay film by Lyn Corelle and Sasha Warren about the decaying graveyards of insane asylums and institutions in the Midwest. Grounded in these sites, they explore the politics of memory and death in the United States. The film discusses a number of painful topics, including genocide, institutional violence, and self-harm. It is 35 min long.
Shots From the Film
What follows is a list of annotations for selected shots/passages from the film.
2:59-3:21 Anoka High School, Anoka, MN
Directly behind where I stood as I was filming this shot is the cemetery
for the Anoka State Hospital, which lies a half of a mile south of the
cemetery. Similarly to the asylum in St. Joesph, MO, the original asylum
has been broken up into veterans' housing, a Department of
Corrections workhouse, a rehab facility, and the smaller Anoka Metro
Regional Treatment Center.
6:42-7:56 Pioneers & Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, Minneapolis, MN
8:31-9:26 Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center, Anoka, MN, and an
adjacent assisted living facility.
9:31-9:38 Pioneers & Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, Minneapolis, MN
9:40-10:37 Powderhorn Park, Minneapolis, MN. The lake that is just
out-of-sight behind the hedge in this shot was much larger before it was
partially destroyed, first by dredging to create athletic fields in 1922 and
then by the destruction of underground channels that fed the lake in the
1960's, caused by the construction of Interstate 35, which slashes
through the city a mile to the west. Now phantom limbs such as this
pond crop up during wet periods and radiate fog at night, filling the
bowl-shaped park with milky cream.
12:11-13:23 Fergus Falls State Hospital Cemetery, Fergus Falls, MN.
As Sasha says, thousands of new headstones have been put in here
and at other cemeteries around the state by the group Remembering
With Dignity, but because of insufficient funding many more stones still
need to be made, or have been made and simply left in stacks at the
edge of the cemetery for years now.
13:27-14:06 Pioneers & Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, Minneapolis, MN.
Established in 1858, this cemetery is the resting place of many early settlers
of Minneapolis, including a number of veterans of the genocidal
Dakota War of 1862. It also feels important to note that this cemetery
sits just blocks away from the 3rd Precinct of the Minneapolis Police
Department, destroyed in the uprising sparked by the murder of George
Floyd. The original march from the spot of Floyd's murder a mile
southwest passed the cemetery on its way to the precinct.
14:43-15:08 Fergus Falls State Hospital, Fergus Falls, MN
15:11-16:46 Pioneer Power, Le Suer, MN. An annual fair “where history
comes to life,” held not far from Mankato. The fair features vintage
steam-powered machinery and exhibits on pioneer life.
16:50-20:04 Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN. A plaque by the statue
identifies it as “Boy With Dolphin”, sculpted by David Wynne and
donated to the Mayo Clinic by Count and Countess Theo and Ida Rossi
di Montelara of Geneva, Switzerland.
20:11-21:25 Pioneers & Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, Minneapolis, MN
22:15-22:22 Lincoln Vapors, Fergus Falls, MN
22:26-22:40 Clouds at sunset, filmed from the Franklin Avenue Bridge
over the Mississippi River, Minneapolis, MN, just a few miles upriver
from the burial mounds Sasha mentions.
22:42-23:17 A park in Minneapolis, MN. This shot has a particular
poignance for me, as I filmed it years ago while walking home at
midnight from Sasha's house, after one of the first times we ever hung
23:25-25:33 A garbage bin crawling with maggots, Minneapolis, MN
25:36-25:51 Pioneers & Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, Minneapolis, MN.
The deer that has lived in this cemetery for the past 4 or so years has
become a favorite of residents of South Minneapolis, receiving regular
gifts of apples and oats purchased at the grocery store across the
street, nibbling on headstone flowers, and even showing up in the
occasional anti-police meme. Within the past few years a second deer
has joined the first. This footage was shot the first time I ever saw the
deer, 4 years ago. While driving by I originally thought it was a statue,
never having thought that a deer could make its way to this oasis in the
heart of the city.
27:18-27:37 Anoka State Hospital Cemetery, Anoka, MN
27:40-27:50 National Capitol Columns, National Arboretum,
Washington, DC. Original columns from the United States Capitol
building. Built in 1828, the columns were removed in 1958 when an
addition to the Capitol was built, and later installed in an empty field at
the National Arboretum.
27:52-28:00 Pioneers & Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, Minneapolis, MN
28:39-30:45 St Mary's Cemetery, Minneapolis, MN. Friends have told
me of a fox that lives in in an underground burrow in this cemetery and
emerges to investigate lone visitors, but I have never personally seen it.
32:03-34:26 Rochester State Hospital Cemetery, Rochester, MN.
Over 2,000 former inmates of the Rochester asylum are buried here, in
what is now Quarry Hill Park, which lies just miles from downtown
Rochester the Mayo Clinic in downtown Rochester. For many years
patients were forced to perform “occupational therapy” quarrying
limestone, as well as working on the asylum's farm. The asylum was
known for its surgical unit, which served as a center for many other
As I walked among the dead lunatics again for the fifth time in six months, a familiar melancholy licked me with its bristly tongue. Surrounded by golden prairie, I stood there soaked and dejected wondering: what was the point of chasing shadows, seeking traces of what’s been lost? At some point, I was convinced that something could be gained from excavating fragments left behind on the paths well-trodden by the mad of times past. This something was elusive, however, and I seemed to have lost my footing.
There is no place in the Americas where the dead don’t scream in agony. There is no crook nor corner unsullied by madness, no green pastures of health and wellness untouched by disablement and debilitation, no fairy tale prairies pure and unsoiled by mass graves. But in the lunatics’ graveyard, the abjections of the past are impressed into the dirt; the Earth itself is simultaneously house and cold, numbered catalogue of bodies bearing marks of sickness, of monstrosity, of capital, but never human life. Asylum graveyards are testaments to lives not worth living, lives whose value only appeared in death when the ghoulish grave robbers made them raw material for medical students or pathologists.
My link to the dead is doubtless tied to the times I’ve lived undead before my cemetery summer: when I was fifteen, I was held for some time in a secure facility in Upstate New York with other delinquent, risky, mad boys. One day, one of the boys confided to a small group that he was experiencing crack withdrawals. He looked terrible, but he smiled in his sweaty sickly way and we all agreed not to mention it again. Like most of us, he did not improve. The air at night was ambient and thick with tears like radio static from all directions when the torrent of voices didn’t drown them out. One day, one of the boys tried to cut his wrists with a dull stone. Unmoved, the world sank deeper into emptiness and shadow every day. From top to bottom, I was cut from whatever cosmic strings keep people attuned to similar frequencies. I did not feel the blows from the stone I snuck onto my sleeping mat on the night I learned how hard it is to break your own legs.
I had become a corpse in life —an experience shared by many lunatics— in what was the first of many periods of psychic putrefaction in my life. In all honesty, I struggle to recall a day on which the thought of my own death hasn’t childishly demanded my attention. In the bright warmth of the summer months, my heart dwells in January. I’ve wallowed in thoughts of ending it all for months at a time, if not years. As the years have passed, I’ve become comfortable with my inevitable end. On the best days, I wear my decay like a summer suit; I am a happy corpse, paying little mind to the worms picking clean my bones.
And the undead, it seemed, were all around. “Soon, you will be released from all pain, all cancer, all depression. The time in the hospital will be just a memory.” So said the pastor at my grandmother’s death bed in Wisconsin many summers later where I waited for the end of a short but agonizing struggle. The death before me unexpectedly had to contend with the enormity of another past death unknown. Answers led only to more questions. What can possibly be said of years locked away? How many volts of course-correcting brutality trespassed that strange matter in her skull? Suddenly, at the moment of death, an intimate link and spark of potential appeared between her and me. But now she’s truly dead, and all that remains is the mention of a past nobody is eager to discuss. Besides, any incidents recalled now are purely factual, and therefore of little import. Madness tends to dissolve at the end of a narrative and from then rears its head disingenuously in words’ disguise.
Whatever commonality appeared in that room flashed and vanished in the same instant. But such is the predicament of the anguished and the mad, the inmates and the patients: the prospect of uniting at the rawest extremities (through wounds), in a commitment to alternate realities (through difference), or through shared knowledge of courtrooms, clinicians’ offices, and intimate awareness of the intensity of four walls (through survival) slips away before it gains footing. The riotous carnival heralded by the symbols of unreason has yet to materialize beyond the level of unlikely friendships or the occasional psych-ward or prison yard mutiny. The meek have yet to inherit the earth; the lunatics have yet to run the asylum.
All that to say that I felt pulled towards the graveyards of lunatics by some irresistible magnetism. I’ve long suspected that much of what we call madness inexplicably includes an interminable pull towards the dead. The Islamic biographies by Ibn al-Jawzi and Talmudic theology betray a secret bond of intimacy between madness and graveyards: in each, the lunatics can be identified by the fact that they go out alone at night to sleep in cemeteries. In the summer of 2019, I set out to see for myself what remained of the cemeteries of insane asylums throughout the Midwest in Indiana, throughout Minnesota, and finally in Missouri, but perhaps in an only partly insane manner, joined as I was by friendly company.
I began my journey with two friends in Indianapolis, ground zero for the first eugenics studies and policies in the world, where the site of the former Central State Hospital has been reclaimed as the headquarters for a “revitalization project” spearheaded by well-meaning artists. Developers hope the Villages at Central State can become “an urban village” that will “help spur more retail.” The old administration building and nurses quarters are now home to artists’ lofts and AirBnB rooms, outfitted with a chic coffee shop and swimming pool to boot; the recreation hall plays host to fancy weddings and events for a couple grand an evening; and, thanks to a generous invitation from the owners, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s Mounted Patrol Unit has established there new stables for their horses. “I wonder what this could be?” is written above a mural on the side of one of the larger buildings. Thanks to developers, we don’t have to wait to find out: a bar will soon be moving in.
All the structures that would have been most familiar and painful for the patients had been reduced to rubble. We climbed a little pile of stone that used to be the massive hospital building called Seven Steeples for its imposing towers and looked out into the wide empty green. The deadhouse, however, remains standing, ominous and daunting, directly behind the Old Pathology Building (now a museum) not far from the Power House (soon to be a brewery) and the stables of the Mounted Patrol Unit.
On one moonlit night, we walked past the hostile barbed wires embracing the building tightly interwoven with waste and green brush serving as evidence of neglect and time before deciding finally to go in. After carefully taking note to see if any equestrian officers were playing night-watchman that evening, my friends and I rushed in through a gap in the fence. All was wreckage and ruin besides a foreboding iron door leading to what we presumed was the cadaver storage room. How could the patients have felt when this little necropolis caught their eye on an evening stroll knowing that in all likelihood they would die there on those grounds and be carted along with the rest of the day’s dead by trolley to be stashed in a refrigerated basement until the day the chief pathologist needed a corrupted brain to open up to curious students? Some might’ve said the lucky ones rested there, stockpiled under lock and key, safe at least from the ravenous grave robbers—colloquially called ghouls in the nineteenth century—looking to make coin procuring bodies for the new anatomy department at the local university.
Once used, cut up, drained of stinking blood into a hole in the floor of the amphitheater, depleted bodies were spit back out again and deposited in the hospital’s cemetery. Unable to find it at first, I was bold enough to ask some artists milling about one day at the coffee shop what they knew about it. I received a vague point into the distance —in what turned out to be the exact opposite of its real location—and the first of many hushed, smirking intimations that “many have said” the cemetery, and by extension, the whole grounds, is haunted. We found it aimlessly ambling the next day; on a hill couched between a busy street and an active construction site, where dozens of rows of cement slabs laid hidden overgrown with grass and smashed by vandals.
What is the point of such a place? What work of memory does it incite? With these questions in mind, we returned the next day to clear the brush and leave some flowers we took from the museum. We agreed that the patients resting in the dusty roadside garbage pit might enjoy the temporary beautification more than the tour groups hoping to satisfy whatever strange morbid itch drives people to survey rows of patients’ brains in jars in the museum rather than pay their respects to the spirits of the deceased.
Every place I visited had its own unique way of saying they didn’t want to see or think about their troublesome mad and disabled outsiders. In Minnesota, if you can find a lunatics’ graveyard (rarely a simple endeavor), you’ll find few of the protruding slabs of granite, columns, and statues we’ve come to expect. Names were, administratively speaking, superfluous. Cylindrical cement markers cut in many cases using a tin can bear only a single number. At Hastings Asylum, hundreds of wooden crosses from earlier years burned in grass fires and will be lost forever.
The disability self-advocacy group Remembering With Dignity based out of the Twin Cities has worked to connect the lives of the overlooked disabled and psychiatrized of today with these silent stones by naming them: after years of research and lobbying the state for funding, the group managed to replace about half of the cement slabs with larger granite stones labeled with names and dates penciled in decayed books long buried in the archives. Renewed vows to the dead and declarations of solidarity with those who saw little of it in life are made at annual dedication ceremonies. Their actions even prompted the state to make an apology in 2010, though a treacherous one, as it coincided with widespread cuts to disability services. The dead speak again, however faintly.
Visiting these newly hallowed resting places puts one at unsteady ease. On one of the busiest streets in Minneapolis, Lake Street, there is a graveyard for “pioneers and soldiers.” The most notable thing about it to me up to then was the solitary deer that lived in this strange urban enclosure who grazed on apples and snacks pedestrians threw past the fence. It was there, in the northeastern corner, where the University of Minnesota laid three-hundred anonymous bodies used for anatomical research to rest in the early twentieth century.
The last stop was in St. Joseph, Missouri in the Fall. The State Lunatic Asylum No. 2 opened in St. Joseph in 1874, and would go on to incarcerate up to 3,000 unfortunates at any time. In the 1990s, the state of Missouri followed the direction already taken throughout much of the country of converting the largest cluster of asylum buildings into a prison, veterans housing, a hospital, or a school, and either destroying the rest or using them for a smaller psychiatric facility or museum. Apparently dissatisfied with just one of these options, St. Joseph decided to do as many as possible: today, a prison surrounded by razor wire and circled every couple minutes by the guard’s pick-up truck stands shoulder to shoulder with a museum, which is just across the street from a psychiatric treatment center. As you park to visit the museum, you can see the prisoners milling about in the yard, no more than fifty feet away.
Founded by a hospital worker who built life-size displays of psychiatric treatments in the 1970s, the Glore Psychiatric Museum administration seems to have had multiple identity crises over the years. A clear glass display holding some 300 pins a patient ate hangs on the same wall that claims to show new neurological imaging of various mental disorders opposite a feminist critique of psychiatric diagnostics, which is next to the room filled with vintage electro-shock machines and straight-jackets. They seem to want to say everything all at once.
On leaving this wing, we found that this was more true than we could’ve imagined. Down the hall, nearly every room was host to its very own specialized museum: out the door of the doll museum, decorated with around 100 or so vintage barbies, one can read a sign reading “…and they were slaves” from the Black Archives. Just a few doors down, past the record collection and the World War I exhibit, 4,000 various objects are proudly displayed as the “Native American collectors’ items” of Harry L. George. Baskets, pottery, and clothing are cramped close into formal categories that say nothing of the objects at hand.
Out of this cacophony of desultory material chaotically displayed, a clear picture nevertheless develops. The collection claims ownership over the dead. It purports to authoritatively present their sufferings, their ideas, their social ties, even their deaths. The proximity of a Native collection and a psychiatric museum is hardly a coincidence: the marriage of medical knowledge, hobbyist collecting, and the desecration of the dead in the Midwest ties the two in a sheet bend knot.
In the wake of the Dakota War in southern Minnesota, 38 warriors were executed with president Lincoln’s approval. Scrambling to the scene of the massacre was none other than William Worall Mayo of the world-famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, who, with the rest of his covert skeleton crew, pilfered as many Dakota bodies as he could. Mayo, however, was after one particular body, that of Mahpiya Akan Naziŋ (One Who Stands on a Cloud). This warrior, called “Cut Nose” by whites because he’d lost a portion of his nose in a hunt, had, according to the doctor, once threatened Mayo and tried to steal his horse. In his memoir, this is a heroic narrative of the just white man standing up to a drunk Indian, and now he had the opportunity to take his fated revenge.
Dr. Mayo hung up his nemesis’ skeleton in his office. It was by studying these bones, he wrote, that his two children, Charles and William, founders of the Mayo Clinic, learned human anatomy. In more ways than one, the medical profession in this country constructed its foundations out of the bodies of colonized and enslaved peoples, not to mention the disabled, the freaks, and the mad.
Thaóyate Dúta, better known as “Little Crow,” the chief of the Mdewakanton Dakota, famous for hesitantly leading attacks during the war, shared his friend’s posthumous fate. His death came when a white man shot him, knowing only that he was an Indian and therefore could be shot according to the recently passed scalping laws that made every white man a potential bounty hunter. When his corpse was positively identified, he was dragged into the small town of Hendrickson. The town held a jubilee while little boys and townspeople paraded his skull on a pike. In the end, they threw him to the pigs, but not before his scalp and skull were harvested by a local physician and sold to the Historical Society, where they remained until the mid-20th century. A letter in the Historical Society’s collection shows that portions of his body were later sold to an individual who placed them in a novelty watch.
Over 100 years later, in 2017, the Walker Art Museum decided to feature a climbable art work by the artist Sam Durrant in their sculpture garden called “Scaffold” based in part on the gallows used in the Dakota War executions. Once again, the sight of children playing at the site or suggestion of Native death was reenacted for pleasure and some dubious notion of “insight.” It is seldom possible in the States to differentiate between war crimes, scientific inquiry, art collection, and commodity sales.
What is the point of burying the dead, or of tending to a space that just happens to contain what used to be our friends, lovers, and family? Just about every recorded human community has treated their dead as more than mere flesh: West Africans brought to the US as slaves buried their dead with their bodies facing east so that the spirit might return to their homeland and be among their ancestors; medieval Christians measured their posthumous blessings by how close to a saint they would be laid to rest in the churchyard; in an interview with Dakota anthropologist Ella Deloria, a survivor of the Dakota War who returned to Minnesota, said “we could not stay away […] because our makapahas [the Santee word for “hills” and graves] were here.” Such acts and sentiments, no matter how small, in their refusal to treat the dead body like a heap of matter, are practical acts of necromancy. They betray a belief in the power of the dead and put them to work. Even the most extreme acts to divest the body of its properties as when the Nazis reduced their victims to dust and released it into the wind reveal a belief in the power of the corpse and seek to annul it.
Echoing the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Karl Marx once advised his proletarian comrades that for the revolutionary struggle to move on, they must “let the dead bury their dead.” The dead will never allow this to happen. The dead work, produce, create. We speak languages inherited from the dead, we live in the worlds they built, we stand on their bones. The dead live on through us; we cannot live except through the dead.
The dead move Earth, sometimes dramatically as when the rank mounds of the war vanquished or unnamed paupers buried quickly stretch so high towards the heavens they form new hills. The apocalyptic agents of manifest destiny moved some mountains with dynamite and gunpowder, and left others —of bone, flesh, and organ— wherever they went. Mounds need not always be the product of the dumping of inconvenient cadavers. The burial mounds found along the Mississippi in St. Paul or in Bloomington, Minnesota were carefully crafted with intention and respect. William Blake advised readers to “Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” If we are to move on as Marx and Jesus desired, we cannot just bury and turn our backs, but acknowledge that any new seeds are sewn in a soil composed of friends and relatives.* Whether with tender or brutal intent, the first work of the dead is the sedimentation of corpses that morphs the geology of the tellurian surface we walk upon.
The dead center and focus political memory. When Lincoln’s body, preserved with the miraculous and novel embalming fluids of his century, was paraded through the ravaged post-war country by locomotive, it became the symbol of a nation. The display of his dead body was central to the patriotic strategy of a new, fragile, unified state. Tears and wild performances of affection made a banner out of mere flesh and bone, and, in so doing, solidified the triumphant image of a country out of shattered wasteland. Lynching photography, that other nation-building work of the dead, conspicuously exploded in short order ensuring that any new political era would still include terroristic white rule. A corpse can likewise (contra Marx) galvanize a radical politic as in the Lichtenberg neighborhood in Berlin where the Friedrichsfelde Central Cemetery served as a feared no-mans-land for police after the massive funeral processions for the socialists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg made their way through working-class districts in Berlin, some of which, like Friedrichshain, remain centers of rebellion to this day.
The dead tell the truth. A medieval proverb says that they “open the eyes of the living.” They can’t help but say everything. In Canton, South Dakota, the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians operated as a special wing of the country’s administration of the mad, being the only federal insane asylum designed to incarcerate the troublesome members of a specific racial group. Now, it’s mostly forgotten. The buildings are all gone and the most popular texts on it still insist on apologizing for its existence since it dealt with “real medical problems” as opposed to the pure cultural and linguistic destruction of the industrial schools. Stone markers having been deemed too high an expense by a superintendent who never even bothered to learn the languages of his prisoners, the 121 who died confined in unheated cells were interred beneath a golf course. The small fence around the plaque is sometimes entered by golfers whose balls are mistakenly hit inside. Every year, Native people trek hundreds of miles on horseback to honor their dead in Canton, where they ride straight past the unholy town into the golf course to hold ceremonies as well as in Mankato, the site of the mass execution. This annual ride is the sole true thing to be found in Canton. Skeletons demand to be recognized; they demand to have their truth told.
The dead tie people to the earth and to the relations they wish to cultivate. It’s no coincidence that many of the political actions of the Red Power movement in the 1960s and 70s centered on the treatment of the dead. In God is Red, Vine Deloria, Jr. recounts a scene in Welch, Minnesota when members of the American Indian Movement disrupted an archeology dig at an Indian burial site, forcing the academics to leave the dead to rest. Their presence there, like the mounds along the river, stand as testament to the Dakota who didn’t just inhabit the land before the settlers, but who still live here and fight to protect their ancestors from posthumous desecration. Actions like these ultimately led the way to NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), providing a legal route for reclaiming at least some of the remains of ancestors. The medieval French law of inheritance dictated that “the dead seize the living;” as in, they tether us to what has passed. Without them, we are lost. Now, more than ever, the planet demands the great civilizations form new relations with the earth, which requires, in turn, recommitments to the dead.
Whether it’s a scalp behind glass in a museum or a membrane flayed open by a scalpel, the involuntary manipulation of the dead body plants the triumphant flag of masculine dominance onto the bodies of the weak. Legions of human remains still haunt private collections awaiting their liberation in earth or ritual; the battle to return Native remains and the bones of Black slaves and paupers for proper treatment and burial continues. The skeleton of Who Stands on a Cloud was passed on like a trophy for generations and only returned to the Santee Dakota in 2018, 156 years after it was stolen. As wondrous as they are, this is one labor the dead cannot perform.
Capitalism has most successfully drained the dead of communal meaning by reducing them to a market value. Marx famously compared capitalism to vampirism, since it, like the winged’ count Dracula of European folklore, can only persist by sucking dry the lifeblood of the living. Capitalism, however, has been equally successful at consuming the flesh and organs of the dead: it is therefore also a ghoul. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the burgeoning anatomy wings of the new medical schools consumed thousands of corpses a year in pursuit of admission into the medical profession and profitable research. They employed hundreds of working class white gravediggers who were looking for more reliable sources of income, while others simply bought slaves to do their dirty work as Grandison Harris was made to do in Georgia. Though we lack definite numbers, pictures of dissections and anecdotes of students and gravediggers alike tell us that whites were more comfortable when it was a Black cadaver under scalpel. “In Baltimore the bodies of coloured people exclusively are take for dissection” wrote Harriet Martineau in 1835, “because the whites do not like it, and the coloured people cannot resist.” Gravediggers have become the odious villains of history, but it’s the professors, body traders, and ultimately capitalism itself that are the real ghouls.
Capitalism, unlike Christianity, has resurrected the dead, but solely for a horrific second life in the market. Instead of redeeming the dead, the developers, city planners, and museum owners seek to extract even more profit from them. Bits and pieces of skulls, scalps, nails, hair, and skin from the laboratory or from lynching sites found their way into illicit markets as collectors’ items and protective relics. Today, the ghost hunters who stalk these places, in a clumsy attempt at connecting with the sufferings of the dead, hasten their conversion into tourist attractions; they distort and diminish that suffering and exploit it for thrills and the price of admission.
We live, then, under the frightening aegis of ghoul capitalism and wretched necropolitical violence. The course of decomposition, understood purely biologically, is first construed as a bulwark to profit and scientifically manipulated to this end. A new class of professional body brokers has arisen to exploit a lax body donation system to harvest organs and skin for laboratories and procure corpses for the US military to obliterate with its new toys before testing them on the living. Ghouls are caricatured as nothing more than a bizarre curiosity of the past, yet the market in bodies is actually more lucrative than ever. The commodified undead cannot perform the communal work we need the dead to do because they have not been allowed to fully skeletalize.
I’ve trembled terribly in sadness my entire life; all too often I feel more at home with the breathless than with the quick. I no longer seek to be purified of this melancholic blue that envelopes me. Now, I think that perhaps to tremble in this way is, as Édouard Glissant wrote, “to tremble the trembling of the world.” The corpse among corpses trembles with the vanquished and is responsible to them. The first necromantic task is to ensure that the skeletal community can begin its work. This may not always entail a burial, but simply could be, to borrow a beautiful phrase spoken by the protagonist of Bessie Head’s novel A Question of Power when she placed her hands over the dirt, a “gesture of belonging” to the land that has always welcomed us and will consume our bodies in time. It’s easy to lose sight of the profundity of this gift.
I couldn’t have guessed in my cemetery summer that a plague year would soon be upon us. Crematoriums are working double time while pictures of bodies filling hotels and refrigerated trucks, and the seemingly antiquated image of prisoners digging paupers’ graves have fast become commonplace again in this country that inures us to every atrocity. The skeletal community grows by the day. Do you hear them? Their bones creak and rattle for closure, not for each and every life lived—the passage of time already forbids this—but for the closure of an age with no reverence for Earth, its dead, or the world they prepared for the living.
Egerton, Douglas R. “A Peculiar Mark of Infamy: Dismemberment, Burial, and Rebelliousness in Slave Societies.” In Mortal Remains: Death in Early America 149-160 ed. Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
Berry, Daina Ramey. “Beyond the Slave Trade, the Cadaver Trade,” The New York Times, February 2, 2018.
Berry, Daina Ramey. The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017
Killgrove, Kristina. “How Grave Robbers And Medical Students Helped Dehumanize 19th Century Blacks And The Poor.” Forbes, July 13, 2015. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2015/07/13/dissected-bodies-and-grave-robbing-evidence-of-unequal-treatment-of-19th-century-blacks-and-poor/#63b470136d12
Neocleous, Mark."Let the dead bury their dead: Marxism and the politics of redemption." Radical Philosophy 128 (Nov/Dec, 2004). https://www.radicalphilosophyarchive.com/issue-files/rp128_article2_letthedeadburytheirdead_neocleous.pdf
Patterson, Randall. "The Organ Grinder," New York Mag, October 8, 2006. https://nymag.com/news/features/22326/
Sappol, Michael. A Traffic of Dead Bodies. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2002
Warner, John Harley, and James M. Edmonson.
Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine: 1880-1930. New York: Blast Books, 2009.
Washington, Harriet A. “The Restless Dead: Anatomical Dissection and Display,” In Medical Apartheid, 115-142. New York: Anchor Books, 2008.
*Note: here, and a few paragraphs above, I seem to be suggesting that Marx advocated a position in which we abandon the dead to the past. Though I am picking apart this particular line, which does seem to suggest this through a surface reading, I want to be clear that Marx's position is actually much nearer my own than this line in isolation would suggest. As Mark Neocleous points out in his article linked to above, Marx emphasized that we cannot act out the lives and struggles of the dead that preceded us, but that we nevertheless do in fact inherit our world from the dead. The idea that the dead generations "weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living" can thus be read as a lamentation of the sterility of these inherited traditions or a frank appraisal of the sedimentation of the labors of the dead and the work that lies ahead of us. Though he was dismayed by the idea of "world historical necromancy," I am suggesting that we need to take it seriously, because it does and will happen whether or not one has their eyes set dead on future horizons.