Diane O’Donoghue Tufts University

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Burying the dead in times of pandemic

Both historical and contemporary records of mass contagion provide occasions for visibility to persons who otherwise remain little recognised and even less studied: those who bury the dead. While global reports attest to self-advocacy among cemetery workers in the current COVID-19 pandemic, the psychological complexities of their labour go virtually unseen. Findings on the experiences of those doing such work reveal a striking contrast. While societal disavowal often renders their task as abject and forgettable, those who inter the remains frequently report affective connections to the dead that powerfully, and poignantly, undermine this erasure. Acknowledging such empathic relationality allows us to look at this profession in areas where it has never been considered, such as psychoanalytic work on ‘mentalisation’ or in contemporary ethics. The article concludes with an example from the accounts of those who have buried the dead in the massed graves on New York’s Hart Island.

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