- Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800
Roughly thirty years ago, historians offered a couple of grand syntheses of the history of death in the western world. While France was at the center of the investigations of Philippe Ariès and Michel Vovelle, both historians looked imaginatively at western Europe, with particularly rich treatment of the early modern era.1 Their books were ambitious and imaginative and even offered some thoughts on death in North America; they still reward serious reading for their examination of themes of community vs. individualism and Christian vs. non-believer. They were followed by numerous regional and national studies on both sides of the Atlantic, but no one has really attempted anything on their scale. Now Erik Seeman has made an effort to address the theme of death in the early modern period across an impressively broad geographic area. He focuses on selected sites in eastern North America and the Caribbean, but behind them lie backgrounds of European, American Indian, and West African deathways.
While Ariès, Vovelle, and their followers focused on the emergence of the individual, of private life, and of secular ways of thinking, Seeman has another agenda. He wants to contribute to the history of the Atlantic world, and he emphasizes cultural inclusiveness, at least for most of the period. He observes how different actors in the early modern Atlantic world reacted to each other's deathways—they might express curiosity, admiration, or disgust—and he shows how cultures held to older traditions, but above all he insists, "Death served as a common ground that allowed individuals to reach across cultural boundaries and understand unfamiliar peoples." (6)
Seeman's principal actors are Algonquian Indians of southern New England, Akan-speaking peoples of the Gold Coast, Western European Jews, French Catholics, and English Protestants. The Dutch are curiously absent, but perhaps he sees their impact as too short-lived, or maybe it just seemed practical to have the English play the Protestant role. One more group presumably wouldn't alter the central message that all five "shared a common language of mortality and deathways." (12) All were concerned with the relationship between the living and the dead, with the possibility of dying well, with anticipating what happened after death, and with understanding others through their practices.
The first chapter lays out major characteristics of the deathways in "old worlds" of America, Africa, and Europe; it describes processions, representations, differential treatment of elite and non-elite corpses, and memorialization. The next explores "first encounters," with Spanish conquistadors and English colonists occupying different places on the spectrum of exclusive and inclusive interpretations of Indian practices. Subsequent chapters function as localized case [End Page 231] studies in the Chesapeake, New France, and New England, followed by treatments of African American and Jewish deathways. Sources range from contemporary accounts of death and funerary customs to archaeological evidence gathered from burial sites. Seeman points out important parallels—they are remarkable despite differences in the details of funerary rites and mourning practices—and uses the telling anecdote to get at a deeply personal level while also recognizing the political and cultural importance of participating in each other's ceremonies.
Explanations of death and the afterlife, including disagreements over the existence of purgatory, formed part of the attempt to conquer and Christianize. But cultural intermediaries often appreciated differences. Seeman is particularly good in using "ethnographic" texts. He shows how Englishman Thomas Harriot and Virginian Robert Beverley move from description of Indian practice to analysis of belief (chapters 2-3). And he demonstrates how French Jesuits and Indians' shared ideas about human remains facilitated understanding as well as conversion. Jesuit Relations are full of deathbed scenes, and Catholics and Hurons proved capable of mutual appreciation (chapter 4). Seeman suggests that English colonists were less curious about Indians than their French counterparts were— traders may have needed to be more aware than settlers—but New England nonetheless produced its share of reporting on Indian practices, as in...