The question "how do you bury your dead?" is central to Erik R. Seeman's Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800. Through an examination (or, perhaps, in this case, a dissection) of deathways, Seeman seeks to explain how New World inhabitants found a common ground through deathways and how shared knowledge of deathways was used both to create alliances and exploit cultural fears within a rival's culture of death.
Seeman's work articulates well into a recent resurgence of scholarly interest dedicated to death and deathways. The culture surrounding death gained much scholarly attention in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the seminal publications of David Stannard's Puritan Way of Death in 1979, followed by Phillip Aries's The Hour of Our Death in 1982. These works created a strong interest in historical perspectives [End Page 259] on death and provided an undercurrent throughout many articles and monographs despite the relative dearth of scholarship for nearly two decades. In 2008, Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering resurrected death as a scholarly interest and discussed how the Civil War altered the American views of death and mortality. Faust's Pulitzer-Prize-nominated work returned the scholarly gaze to death. Seeman's work fits well within this resurgence of interest, focusing on the culture that came well before soldiers fell at Fort Sumter and forever changed death in the American mind.
Seeman focuses upon first contact between Native Americans and Europeans to roughly the turn of the nineteenth century, ending with the War of 1812. The bulk of his work encompasses the lateseventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries. He builds upon Stannard's regional work, filling out the Eastern Seaboard by looking into perspectives on death by each of the settlers of the region—Native American, Spanish, French, African, and English. He discusses how Old World traditions were reformed in the New World and how cultures both melded and clashed in the new territories. Moving roughly chronologically, Seeman discusses each new group of settlers and their deathways in America, and how ideas either migrated with settlers or were left on European shores to be reformed anew in America. To augment his arguments, Seeman mined a variety of sources—from contemporary writings on the subject, to illustrations, archaeology, and material goods. Seeman artfully combined his selection of sources in combination with an interesting narrative to offer an encompassing, engrossing perspective on death and deathways. Of particular note is Seeman's ability to interpret cross-cultural interactions within the New World. Seeman artfully explores different cultures and their similarities and differences, giving the reader a heightened perspective of both cultures. When juxtaposed against completely foreign cultures, European, African, and Native American cultures, religions, and deathways become all the more stark in contrast and allow for an interesting perspective into life and death within these cultures. However, as a result of the massive task he [End Page 260] undertook, Seeman was able to engage only the first few layers of each culture, leaving a wealth underneath to be mined. Seeman was able to articulate many of the finer points for a cross-cultural comparison, while leaving scholars with many questions left unanswered and open to exploration in future works and research.
Seeman's holistic glimpse into early American deathways is a welcome addition to the existing literature, and hopefully will spur future scholars to action with further research into the topic. The encompassing nature of his book offers a supreme overview of a vital topic and should act as a starting point for even more in-depth studies from future scholars inspired by his work.
Amy Coffman Murray received her master's degree from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. Her thesis, "To the Memory of Sweet Infants: Eighteenth-Century Commemorations of Child Death in Tidewater, Virginia," discussed how parents remembered deceased infants and children, juxtaposed against the evolving concept of childhood across the eighteenth century.