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
Gaëlle Clavandier, Marc-Antoine Berthod, Philippe Charrier, Martin Julier-Costes, and Veronica Pagnamenta
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.
Liliana Sanjurjo, Desirée Azevedo, and Larissa Nadai
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.
This contribution brings together the history of psychiatry and the history of disability in Belgium, for the period stretching from the end of the eighteenth century up till the end of the twentieth century. The chapter starts with enumerating several key reasons why such an approach is not only possible, but also valuable and innovative. On the basis of different case studies related to the history of disability and the history of psychiatry, the specificity of Belgian care and medicine is being discussed. Some of the themes being touched upon are the introduction of Belgian psychiatric legislation, the emergence of educational institutes for blind and/or deaf people, the impact of the First World War on representation of otherness and the well-known tradition of family care for psychiatric patients. On the basis of these and other case studies it is, first of all, argued that the Belgian state played an active role in the problematisation of mental and physical differences, but that it actually was private institutions, mainly religious congregations, who managed these populations on a daily basis. Second, the chapter pleads also to take into consideration the agency of the people who were controlled and disciplined; they were not only able to oppose and reinterpret the categories and norms that were imposed on them; they also used these labels to construct new (positive) identities – bringing them into competition with physicians, experts, bureaucrats, etc. By highlighting the variety of different players involved, this chapter illustrates the general theme of this section, ‘Beyond Physicians’.
The epilogue takes stock of the merit and potential of the ‘new narratives’ presented in this volume. As a whole, the volume intends to do two things: empirically, it presents medical histories on Belgium to the Anglophone world while, conceptually, it does so by using the latest methods and perspectives. While ‘traditional’ medical history mainly represented stories about medical science, the medical profession and the state, these new narratives are (also) about patients, alternative healers, clergymen, women and other historical actors. With its contributors writing after many ‘turns’ (social, cultural, performative, praxeological, material and somatic), the ambition of the present volume is to move beyond science, the profession and the state. Like medicine, medical history is not owned by physicians, but by all of us. While in the past, medical history was written by male, Western physicians, today’s medical history is (also) written by historians, women and non-Westerners, producing multiperspective and multivocal stories. While some may regret this development because of the fragmentation it entails, much is to be gained by including all historical actors. Moving beyond the great doctors, decentring the big picture and provincialising Europe leads to a diversity of narratives – representing the diversity of today’s world.
In an era of transnational and global historiography, reflecting on the national frames of writing medical history remains a necessary endeavour. On the one hand, it helps historians to interrogate the metanarratives they use in writing about the medical past, many of which still focus on interactions between physicians and the state and stem from an older social historiography of medicine. By widening their gaze to a history of (health) care, historians may bring a broader range of actors and influences into the limelight. On the other hand, questioning national frames of writing history also shows the complex stratification of local practices, international circulation of scientific knowledge and national structures. Medical histories of modern Belgium therefore consist above all of a variety of entanglements taking place both in Belgium and beyond.