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David Stannard’s The Puritan Way of Death and Philippe Ariès’s The Hour of Our Death, both published in 1977, represented watershed scholarship that introduced the historical study of death to social and cultural historians, a subject that had previously been widely regarded as taboo. Stannard’s work in particular shaped the trajectory of the study of death in American history, with most subsequent work focusing either on the northern experience or on the national experience, largely defined by northeastern examples. By bringing together a series of essays whose subjects are firmly situated within the southern region and tradition, Death and the American South, edited by Craig Thompson Friend and Lorri Glover, offers a [End Page 295] unique and valuable new resource for scholars and students interested in the meaning of death in American history and culture. Seeking to answer the question, “How has death framed southern history?,” the eleven essays in this volume present striking examples of death as southerners experienced it in manifold forms from the seventeenth to the twentieth century (p. 1).
Most conspicuous about the essays is a shared outlook concerned with how the living perceived the manner in which death occurred, be it through violence, suicide, disease, catastrophe, or the “good death,” rather than focusing strictly on attitudes toward the dead, mourning, burial, or memorialization practices. In this way, the authors highlight the fact that death and the dead are a part of life and the lived experience, and that we cannot separate death from discussions of colonization, warfare, religion, slavery, and Jim Crow, or even our conceptions of nationalism and national identity. Friend and Glover contend that the book explores “the intimate relationship between death and southern history,” but they maintain that they are not “making a generalizing case for the uniqueness of southern death and deathways” (p. 2). Despite the inherent “southernness” of each essay, the editors argue that the southern experiences with death in the volume may be applied more broadly, since “the history of death in the south took shape within larger contexts—European empires, plantation colonies, the United States, the Western world—that make futile any argument for consistently unique southern ways of death” (p. 2).
This is the great strength of Death and the American South. The authors’ contextualization of their subjects within the broader Atlantic world highlights what many southerners have argued since the time of the American Revolution—that the South may be a distinct region within the nation but it also defines the national experience in profound ways. One can consider the history of the United States and find that interethnic violence, evangelical revivalism, slavery, sexual victimization, depression and suicide, epidemic diseases, the cult of the Founding Fathers, and the expansion of the funeral industry are [End Page 296] universal themes that have manifested throughout the nation. What we find, however, is that by examining specific southern examples, there was a particular intensity to those experiences as they manifested in the South, and this is where we witness what makes the southern experience of death unique.
For example, nowhere else in the Americas did more Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans interact with each other, often in exceedingly violent and bloody ways. The federal government has a long history of making and breaking treaties with Native tribes, but it was the Cherokee in Georgia who were forced to endure the Trail of Tears. Although European settlers adopted slavery throughout the western hemisphere, white southerners’ unremitting commitment to race-based slavery was unique in North America. The violence inherent to the system set the stage for the violence of Jim Crow segregation and the lynchings that became endemic throughout the nation in the twentieth century. The experience of slavery and Jim Crow meant that, for African Americans, the nominally apolitical acts of taking possession of a corpse and preparing it for burial often became acts of autonomy and resistance in the face of white hegemony. Civil War veterans in both the North and...