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  • Death is All around Us: Corpses, Chaos, and Public Health in Porfirian Mexico City by Jonathan M. Weber
  • Kathryn A. Sloan

Public Health, Mexico, Nineteenth century, Burial Practices

Jonathan M. Weber, Death is All around Us: Corpses, Chaos, and Public Health in Porfirian Mexico City. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019. 294 pp.

Nineteenth-century cities around the world struggled to deal with the realities of the dead and dying. High mortality rates, rapid industrialization and urbanization, and rural-urban migration contributed to the onslaught of public health issues related to the infectious living and decaying bodies. Literally, corpses littered the public spaces and the morgues of the modernizing city. Likewise, a marker of civilization and modernity correlated to how governments faced death and the public health crises wreaked on a society by uncontrolled death and decay. Mexico City was no different than Paris or New York. Municipalities faced public health emergencies because they lacked sufficient procedures and infrastructure to deal with the bodies piling up in the morgues and streets.

Jonathan Weber sets his analytical lens on understanding how Porfirian (reign of Porfirio Díaz, 1876-1911) officials endeavored to control death ways in order to ameliorate health conditions in the city, and consequently, to lower mortality rates among its population. One out of every nineteen people died prematurely in Mexico City, a rate that was more than double that of Paris at the same time. Porfirian officials were certainly bent on being modern as they faced scrutiny on the world stage, and Weber argues that by promoting public health through the control of death customs the state also controlled the behavior of its citizens, especially the working poor. Indeed, managing dead bodies allowed Porfirian officials to also regulate bodies of the living.

Death is All around Us is organized around four thematic chapters that are supported by research in several archives and types of documents. Judicial records, patent applications, medical school documents, and presidential correspondence are just some of the documents that Weber employs. The first chapter presents a fascinating portrait of the state's efforts to move the dead out of the city and to hygienic cemeteries. The era coincided with an increased push to end all burials in churchyards and relocate burial rituals in the public cemeteries that flanked the city. The idea was [End Page 221] to have burial be more modern (controlled and regulated) and hygienic (relocate the malodorous corpses from the tourist centers of the city). New rules determined coffin construction and rail car transportation to minimize the miasmic odors that threatened residents' health and Mexico's modern image. Corpse deposits functioned to hold the overflow of corpses as gravediggers struggled to keep up with the demand for internment space. The deposits provoked scandals among the populace as no one wanted piles of dead flesh and bone in their neighborhood. Chapter Two narrates the role of autopsy in medical education and examines the donation of cadavers from the mental asylum and various hospitals around the city. But as Weber shows, donating corpses for the furthering of science did not remove the need to bury more and more mortal remains as death rates climbed. Chapter Three presents an engrossing discussion of funerary patent applications. Many applicants hailed from the United States, believing Mexico to be an advantageous market. Fashionable coffins for the elite to assert their wealth, hermetically sealed caskets to slow decomposition, and gas injection coffins to mummify dead loved ones were just some of the inventions. Weber ends the chapter with a discussion of topical and arterial embalming and cremation. He demonstrates that the poor did not accept or afford all of this technology that aimed to supplant a religious, and therefore unhygienic, ritual of death. The final chapter focuses on working class agency. No matter how Porfirian officials attempted to reform approaches to death and burial in Mexico City, the working poor held fast to traditional moral economies of death as they abandoned, mourned, or clandestinely buried their dead. The modernist Porfirian state, meanwhile, wanted funerary customs to be quick, silent, and clean. The working poor wished to honor their dead with a several day-long velorio or...


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