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  • Speaking with the Dead in Early America by Erik R. Seeman
  • Kirsten Fischer (bio)

Death, Protestantism, Spiritualism, Cult of the dead, Religion

Speaking with the Dead in Early America. By Erik R. Seeman. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019. Pp. 344. Cloth, $39.95).

When the Protestant Reformation abolished purgatory, the place between heaven and hell where the majority of souls were cleansed of sin before ascending to heaven, it also eliminated the ability of the living to [End Page 310] use prayer to aid the souls of their beloved dead. Communication between the living and the dead ceased for Protestants, or so we have thought. In this delightfully surprising book, Erik R. Seeman shows that Protestants were not so easily separated from their dead. Through imaginative literature and material culture, they retained their relationships with the deceased, speaking to the dead and sometimes, although less often, with them.

Seeman initially set out to explain the 1850s boom in séance Spiritualism whose sudden popularity seemed as odd as the rapping sounds on parlor tables with which the dead communicated with the entranced living. But he did not write the pre-history of Spiritualism as he had intended because the archives revealed a much broader and less known phenomenon: long-standing customs of communication with the deceased within many strands of Euro American Protestantism. Seeman makes clear that the practice of sustaining active relationships with the dead—he calls this the "cult of the dead" and its followers "cultists"—did not require two-way communication. Even imagined conversation, he argues, served as a deeply meaningful way to retain relationships with those who had died.

Granted, some Protestants believed they actually interacted with and could influence the fate of the dead. Swedenborgians, for example, understood that their founder, Emanuel Swedenborg, conversed with people who in death had become angels. Shakers made communication with the dead a central part of their religious practice, and Mormons used proxy baptism, baptizing a live person on behalf of someone deceased, to bring the dead into the Mormon fold. These believers claimed a direct exchange with the dead. Seeman, however, is more interested in indirect (because imagined) relationships, making the case that these, too, belong in our conception of the Protestant "cult of the dead."

In eight loosely chronological chapters organized by type of source material, Seeman introduces the reader to the different means by which Protestants spoke to or imagined hearing from the dead. Some texts come from a familiar yet overlooked archive: the cemetery. "Talking" headstones with carved messages from the departed held visitors in suspended moments of imagined connection. In this way, Protestants experienced cemeteries as sites of immanence that supported communion with the dead. Graveside elegies, like those written by Phillis Wheatley, gave voice to the dead in verse and prose. Popular literature, especially Gothic fiction with its interest in the supernatural, helped Protestants explore the [End Page 311] boundary between the living and the dead. Seeman makes especially creative use of material culture, namely the objects that expressed and maintained post-mortem connections. Corpses, most immediately, became sites and means of communication. More lasting were household objects with spiritual significance, such as hair jewelry made with locks from the deceased, daguerreotypes and portraits made shortly after the death of a family member, and mourning embroidery that ventriloquized the dead.

Bringing home the larger argument, Seeman shows that Protestantism—frequently described as a religion of creeds rather than embodied practice, of interiority rather than materiality, and of the absence rather than presence of spiritual beings—was not as self-contained as scholars have thought. In fact, Seeman says, a full "three centuries of Protestant popular belief in burial grounds as sites of haunting, two centuries of talking gravestones, a century of Graveyard School poetry, and many decades of sentimental and Gothic literature" had prepared the way for a bereaved Protestant in the mid-nineteenth century to think her mother's spirit hovered in the cemetery or might coming knocking at the parlor table (227). Many kinds of religious texts and objects, "taken together, point to the emergence of a cult of the dead decades before the advent of séance...


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pp. 310-313
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