Research into the governance of dead bodies, primarily focused on post-conflict
contexts, has often focused on the aspects of the management of dead bodies that
involve routinisation, bureaucratisation and order. Less attention has been paid
to the governance of the dead in times of relative peace and, in particular, to
the aspects of such work that are less bureaucratised and controlled. This
article explores the governance of dead bodies in pandemic times – times
which although extraordinary, put stress on ordinary systems in ways that are
revealing of power and politics. Observations for this article come from over
fifteen years of ethnographic research at a medical examiner’s office in
Arizona, along with ten focused interviews in 2020 with medico-legal authorities
and funeral directors specifically about the COVID-19 pandemic. The author
argues that the pandemic revealed the ways in which the deathcare industry in
the United States is an unregulated, decentralised and ambiguous space.
This article sets forth a theoretical framework that first argues that
necropolitical power and sovereignty should be understood as existing on a
spectrum that ultimately produces the phenomenon of surplus
death – such as pandemic deaths or those disappeared by the state. We
then expound this framework by juxtaposing the necropolitical negligence of the
COVID-19 pandemic with the violence of forced disappearances to argue that the
surplus dead have the unique capacity to create political change and reckonings,
due to their embodied power and agency. Victims of political killings and
disappearance may not seem to have much in common with victims of disease, yet
focusing on the mistreatment of the dead in both instances reveals uncanny
patterns and similarities. We demonstrate that this overlap, which aligns in key
ways that are particularly open to use by social actors, provides an entry to
comprehend the agency of the dead to incite political reckonings with the
violence of state action and inaction.
COVID-19 has reinstated the sovereign enclosures of corpse management that mothers of the disappeared had so successfully challenged in the past decade. To explore how moral duties toward the dead are being renegotiated due to COVID-19, this article puts forward the notion of biorecuperation, understood as an individualised form of forensic care for the dead made possible by the recovery of biological material. Public health imperatives that forbid direct contact with corpses due to the pandemic, interrupt the logics of biorecuperation. Our analysis is based on ten years of experience working with families of the disappeared in Mexico, ethnographic research within Mexico’s forensic science system and online interviews conducted with medics and forensic scientists working at the forefront of Mexico City’s pandemic. In the face of increasing risks of viral contagion and death, this article analyses old and new techniques designed to bypass the prohibitions imposed by the state and its monopoly over corpse management and identification.
The handling of the deceased during the COVID-19 pandemic, a case study in France and Switzerland
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about an unprecedented global crisis. To limit the spread of the virus and the associated excess mortality, states and governing bodies have produced a series of regulations and recommendations from a health perspective. The funerary aspects of these directives have reconfigured not only the ways in which the process of dying can be accompanied, but also the management of dead bodies, impacting on the dying, their relatives and professionals in the sector. Since March 2020, the entire process of separation and farewell has been affected, giving rise to public debates about funeral restrictions and the implications for mourning. We carried out a study in France and Switzerland to measure the effects of this crisis, and in particular to explore whether it has involved a shift from a funerary approach to a strictly mortuary one. Have the practices that would normally be observed in non-pandemic times been irrevocably altered? Does this extend to all deaths? Has there been a switch to an exclusively technical handling? Are burial practices still respected? The results of the present study pertain to the ‘first wave’ of spring 2020 and focus on the practices of professionals working in the funeral sector.
This article analyses the management of bodies in Brazil within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its objective is to examine how the confluence of underreporting, inequality and alterations in the forms of classifying and managing bodies has produced a political practice that aims at the mass infection of the living and the quick disposal of the dead. We first present the factors involved in the process of underreporting of the disease and its effects on state registration and regulation of bodies. Our analysis then turns to the cemetery to problematise the dynamics through which inequality and racism are re-actualised and become central aspects of the management of the pandemic in Brazil. We will focus not only on the policies of managing bodies adopted during the pandemic but also on those associated with other historical periods, examining continuities and ruptures, as well as their relationship to long-term processes.
Presumed black immunity to yellow fever and the racial politics of burial labour in 1855 Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia
Michael D. Thompson
Epidemic disease regularly tore through nineteenth-century American cities, triggering public health crises and economic upheaval. These epidemic panics also provoked new racialised labour regimes, affecting the lives of innumerable working people. During yellow fever outbreaks, white authorities and employers preferred workers of colour over ‘unacclimated’ white immigrants, reflecting a common but mistaken belief in black invulnerability. This article chronicles enslaved burial labourers in antebellum Virginia, who leveraged this notion to seize various privileges – and nearly freedom. These episodes demonstrate that black labour, though not always black suffering or lives, mattered immensely to white officials managing these urban crises. Black workers were not mere tools for protecting white wealth and health, however, as they often risked torment and death to capitalise on employers’ desperation for their essential labour. This history exposes racial and socioeconomic divergence between those able to shelter or flee from infection, and those compelled to remain exposed and exploitable.