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  • Dead Bodies After the Fall of the Wall
  • Thomas Hawley (bio)
Katherine Verdery, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change (Columbia University Press, 1999)

In this book anthropologist Katherine Verdery analyzes the significance of dead bodies to the radical changes in the former Communist bloc since the fall of Communism in 1989. Efforts to understand “postsocialist transformations” must recognize that these transformations are significant not simply for their overtly political manifestations, but also for their social, cultural, and personal import. As a radically disorienting experience, postsocialism presents problems of “. . . reorganization on a cosmic scale, and involves the redefinition of virtually everything, including morality, social relations and basic meanings. It means a reordering of people’s entire meaningful worlds.” (35) In examining recent exhumations and reburials of historically significant figures in this region, Verdery argues for a connection between activity surrounding dead bodies and the desire to come to terms with the dramatic changes of the past ten years. As she argues, dead bodies “. . . help us to see political transformation as something more than a technical process—of introducing democratic procedures and methods of electioneering, of forming political parties and nongovernmental organizations, and so on. The ‘something more’ includes meanings, feelings, the sacred, ideas of morality, the nonrational . . .” (25) In short, dead bodies are the material sites at which processes of postsocialist reorientation and meaning creation are carried out.

The central question in Verdery’s analysis is, “Why dead bodies? What is it about a corpse that seems to invite its use in politics, especially in moments of major transformation?” (27) To begin answering this question, she cites the body’s materiality as key to its symbolic potency. As she argues,

Unlike notions such as “patriotism,” or “civil society,” for instance, a corpse can be moved around, displayed, and strategically located in specific places. Bodies have the advantage of concreteness that nonetheless transcends time, making past immediately present . . . That is, their corporeality makes them important means of localizing a claim.


The possibility of political appropriation of dead bodies therefore lies simultaneously in their materiality and temporality. Materially, they are in some significantly verifiable sense “there.” Yet the significance of this “thereness” is derived not only from its tangibility, but because the body in question is that of a specific person whose lived life was, and still is, significant to a given people. Put differently, not just any body will do. Rather, the dead bodies at issue in postsocialism are very frequently those of historically significant personages whose availability for diverse appropriations depends both on their specific biography and the disparate ways in which a particular dead person’s importance is construed by the people in question.

This importance is often derived from ideas about ancestor worship, kinship, and proper burial, themselves illustrative of Verdery’s claim that these exhumations and reburials are specific to postsocialism. She cites beliefs common in southern, Central, and Eastern Europe that “. . . the soul of the deceased person watches the funeral, and if it is dissatisfied, it will return and punish the living by creating havoc, often in the form of illness” and that a “. . .well-fed, contented soul will protect its earthly kin.” (43) Not simply a one-time event, proper burial and subsequent “care” of the dead contain broad implications for both ancestors and descendants, whose “. . .harmonious coexistence is about more than just getting along: it is part of an entire cosmology, part of maintaining order in the universe.” (42) The possibility of an ordered, sensible existence among the living depends significantly on how well the dead have been cared for both at burial and subsequently.

The postsocialist practice of exhuming and reburying well-known historical figures is thus situated at the intersection of the material properties of the dead body, the temporal horizon of the specific dead body in question, and the practices that bring this significance to life. Verdery suggests a number of political implications behind this “activity around dead bodies.” First, given that many traditional burial practices were often suppressed under Communism, calls for their reinstatement by politicians representing the new order mark a tangible break with the recent past. Second and more importantly, insofar as harmonious...

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