Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials (review)
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Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials. By Michael Kammen. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Pp. xi, 260. $25.00 cloth)

To paraphrase Mark Antony's classic speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, I come to praise Michael Kammen, not to bury him. Kammen is a prolific historian of American cultural history and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize. His latest book, Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials, is a rich, anecdotal compendium of oddness—a chronicle of the weird but not-so-uncommon practice of exhuming and reburying the dead. Antony's eulogy continues, "The evil that men do lives after them, / The good is oft interred with their bones." Kammen's general contention is that those bones quite often have not remained interred, at least not in their original graves, if their exhumation can accomplish some political good or enhance familial, local, regional, or national pride.

As Kammen notes, notable Americans have not always died in desirable or convenient places. In times predating the modern technologies of preservation and rapid transportation, it often proved impossible to transfer the mortal remains of prominent Americans who expired away from home. Circumstances demanded nearby interment. Moreover, especially before the second decade of the nineteenth century, Americans observed less elaborate funerals and marked graves less often and less ornately than would later be the case. And, not surprisingly, some died obscurely even though they had once commanded—and would again command—notoriety. The remains of some famous Americans thus found their way into modest, poorly marked (or unmarked), badly maintained graves.

But that would change. With the increased assertion of sectional [End Page 130] or national feeling, or newly inspired by local or familial pride, or encouraged by commercial boosters intent on promoting private cemetery ventures or tourism, or sometimes almost by chance, it became imperative that some illustrious Americans be disinterred and then reburied, often with considerable ceremony.

Kammen provides a treasure trove of peculiar stories about such reburials. He has discerned some loose patterns among these extraordinary occurrences, and especially in the last chapter of the book (dealing predominantly with the more fiercely political European exhumations and reinterments) he offers some comparative commentary. But Digging Up the Dead never exactly provides readers a coherent thesis explaining the American phenomenon. Chapter one provides "A Short History of Reburial," which must function as a form-giving skeleton to the sometimes random but rich body of reburial tales that follow. The subsequent organization of the book is not chronological but thematic, and one might wish that those themes were more fully explained and developed, as we cycle and recycle through the centuries of American history. Some chapters are virtual omnibuses, taking us wherever Kammen's research and impressive learning entice him to go. It's a fun ride—lively, provocative, and decidedly not melancholy—even if we do not always understand the itinerary.

Along the way, we tour the shifting mortuary landscape of revolutionary heroes, famous and infamous Americans, and various literary and artistic celebrities. Kammen introduces us to a range of characters who defied the entreaty chiseled onto Shakespeare's gravestone: "Blest be the man that spares these stones / And curst be he that moves my bones."

Why does Kammen take us to some graves and not others? He creatively colors outside the lines seemingly defined by his title. Beside those events that technically qualify as reburials, he treats elaborate funeral processions that seem to constitute burials rather than reburials, nonreburials that might have been (or might still), and tomb renovations that are not really exhumations and reburials [End Page 131] in new sites. And Kammen ventures well beyond the political boundaries of the United States; his captivating examples actually encompass every continent except Antarctica (though he does trace the posthumous careers of Arctic explorers Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson's mortal remains).

Kentuckians will be particularly interested, perhaps, in Kammen's account of their hero Daniel Boone's repatriation from Missouri. But they might regret his omission of Henry Clay's remarkable translation from Washington, D.C., to Lexington after his death in 1852—an unprecedented, interstate...