Death, Burial, and Citizenship

For those two brothers of ours, in burial
has not Creon honored the one, dishonored the other?

Sophocles, Antigone

If we must bury the dead, where shall we do so? And how does this choice reflect the relationship between the individual and the state? For Sophocles, the recognition of death is a political matter. Creon, King of Thebes, offers the faithful Eteocles a proper funeral, but forbids the burial of the rebellious Polyneices. He then condemns Antigone, sister to both fallen men, to death when she honors Polyneices by burying him.

Things are not so different today. Memorial Day calls to mind the ways in which war memorials and military cemeteries are what the historian Pierre Nora calls sites of memory. They are political entities that originate as places of mourning. Although they have existed for thousands of years, the bloodshed of the twentieth century has made them ubiquitous. Every city, town, and village in Europe has a memorial to its fallen soldiers, usually in a prominent place where it serves as a landmark and a site of civic or national pride. At times such memorials can become spectacular. The installation marking the centenary of the First World War—with over 800,000 hand-made ceramic poppies commemorating the deaths of every British soldier flooding the grounds of the Tower of London, so that the buildings appeared to be awash in a moat of blood—is a particularly poignant example.

Tower of London, 2014. By Diesel Bob (Own work), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tower of London, 2014. By Diesel Bob (Own work), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Such memorials, as well as the neatly arranged grave markers in the cemeteries of Normandy and other battlefields, are important indicators of the ways in which states value the deaths of their citizens. Memorials perform a critical civic function in ambivalent ways. In their solemnity, they remind us of the sacrifices inherent in war. But they also tend to ennoble war; or, at the very least, they tend to present a sanitized version of the cost of war. There is thus a purposeful forgetting in such memorials: their orderliness belies the savagery of war and the conditions of the bodies contained in these tombs.

Both the remembrance of death and its forgetting are imbued with deep meaning and an implicit suggestion of the importance of death for the consecration of place. This is particularly salient in the cases of the bodies the state refuses to commemorate. War memorials, for example, have not until very recently paid tribute to those shot for desertion; yet those losses were at least as painful for families as other war deaths, and were every bit as much products of war and its brutality. The same holds for the deaths of enemies of the state, for whom there can be no memorial, no site for mourning. When U.S. forces killed Osama Bin Laden, they buried his body at sea in international waters, so that no nation could claim his remains. The Kouachi brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris in January 2015 received similar treatment. Although the law is ambiguous on the subject, France has historically provided for a religiously appropriate burial, even in cases of terrorism. But Chérif and Saïd Kouachi were only buried in Gennevilliers and Reims, respectively, at night, in unmarked graves, and over the mayors’ and citizens’ objections. As Arnaud Robinet, the mayor of Reims, told the press, “I refused to allow them to buy the concession, but the state reminded me of my obligations according to the law…. Above all, I don’t want there to be a tomb in the community that could be that of a martyr for some people.” The public acknowledgment of death through burial and memorialization provides a particularly legible recognition of that death and its legitimacy by state and community.

The debate over the burial of the Kouachi brothers has a particular resonance for me, as I associate Charlie Hebdo with another recent controversy in France over the appropriate recognition of death. In June 2009, I conducted an interview in the weekly’s former offices in the rue de Turbigo—the same that were firebombed in 2011. I met there with Patrick Pelloux, a physician and columnist for the publication, who had played a key role in the 2003 heat wave disaster that left 15,000 dead in France, and tens of thousands more dead across Europe. Pelloux had been the head of France’s emergency physicians’ union at the time, and through his media contacts, was the one who broke the story of the disaster in the making, reporting dozens of deaths in his hospital and hundreds throughout the country. Pelloux and I spoke about climate change, disaster, vulnerability, and adaptation in an extended conversation.

We also spoke about a particular subgroup of those who died during the disaster. These were the so-called “forgotten” victims of the heat wave. They are those who died alone in Paris and its suburbs, buried at public expense when no family claimed their bodies. They died (and to a great extent lived) unnoticed by their neighbors, discovered in some cases only weeks after their deaths. They were often elderly, poor, homeless (or precariously housed), mentally ill, disabled, addicted, or all of the above. And as with the victims of Hurricane Katrina, they rapidly became the symbols of the disaster for a nation wringing its hands over the mismanagement of the heat wave and the social and political dysfunctions it revealed.

The <em>secteurs d’indigents</em> at the Parisian public cemetery at Thiais, where the unclaimed bodies of victims of the 2003 heat wave were buried. Photo by Richard C. Keller.

The secteurs d’indigents at the Parisian public cemetery at Thiais, where the unclaimed bodies of victims of the 2003 heat wave were buried. Photo by Richard C. Keller.

My recently published book, Fatal Isolation, tells the stories of these victims and the catastrophe that took their lives. It is at once a social history of risk and vulnerability in the urban landscape, and an ethnographic account of how a city copes with emerging threats. At the core of the project, however, are the ways in which deaths and lives are forgotten as well as remembered. As public memorials of war, the hidden burials of enemies of the state, and the relegation of disaster victims all demonstrate, there are different kinds of deaths, some of which the state has an interest in enshrining, others an interest in forgetting.

And forgetting is not merely passive: it is an active process as well. The interment of the heat wave’s dead in the Parisian suburb of Thiais was a solemn occasion marked by the presence of the French president, the minister of health, the mayor of Paris, and a host of other notables. Yet the site of the burial itself is the antithesis of a memorial. It is an ephemeral space, a segment of a vast public cemetery that is designed above all to be a temporary resting place. Thiais’s secteurs d’indigents, or “poor sections,” provide a way station for Paris’s unclaimed bodies. Some 1000 poured-concrete tombs with removable lids hold the simple wooden coffins of Paris’s homeless, its desperately poor, and its lonely dead, those with neither the means nor the social networks to provide for proper burials. By law, bodies remain there for five years to allow relatives ample time to come forward; after that time, they may be removed and cremated to make way for new tenants. They are anything but a final resting place.

A technocropolis? Tools for temporarily managing death at Thiais. Photo by Richard C. Keller.

A technocropolis? Tools for temporarily managing death at Thiais. Photo by Richard C. Keller.

A process of forgetting marks the disposal of these victims’ bodies, but also the broader, structural vulnerabilities that shaped their lives and influenced their deaths. The heat wave primarily struck down those whom economic development and market liberalization have left behind. The disaster’s death toll offered a stark reminder of how populations living on the edge of citizenship and humanity remain at the heart of the city, and in significant numbers. Yet in everyday circumstances, the elderly poor, the homeless, and the disabled occupy a small place in the consciousness of most.

Such forgetting is far from benign neglect. An active investment in some forms of population development, combined with a media and political rhetoric that has historically marginalized others, has produced a widespread invisibility of certain subjects. Other terms that the press used to describe the forgotten victims underscore this invisibility: “les morts dans l’anonymat” and “les corps anonymes” (“anonymous deaths” and “nameless bodies”) offer useful metaphors for the place of these subjects in the contemporary urban landscape as reservoirs of a lack of knowledge. The heat wave’s forgotten victims rapidly became a metonym for the entire population that died during the disaster, implying the widespread marginality of those who died. If societies develop certain types of knowledge rather than others—a marker for their investment in certain populations rather than others—then there are clues in those societies and their politics that hint at the complex processes that render some populations invisible, incapable of assimilation into full citizenship, and subject to a revocation of the social contract.

To draw on Sophocles again, the recognition of death is the ultimate testament to citizenship. It is easy for the state to valorize the deaths of its heroes, for these are its ideal citizens, the image it projects to the world. But it is more difficult to recognize the dead who are reminders of uncomfortable truths. At times those dead are reminders of treason or desertion, who provoke difficult questions about the meaning of war. At others, they are reminders of insecurity and attacks on the state’s values. And at still others, they are reminders of the limitations of citizenship itself, for no nation wishes to project an image of itself that comprises its most vulnerable subjects.

Featured Image: The secteurs d’indigents at the Parisian public cemetery at Thiais, where the unclaimed bodies of victims of the 2003 heat wave were buried. Photo by Richard C. Keller.

Richard C. Keller is Professor of Medical History and Bioethics and Associate Dean in the Division of International Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research lies at the intersection of the history and ethnography of European and global health. His most recent book is Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003 (University of Chicago Press, 2015), which examines intersections of human and environmental vulnerability in the worst natural disaster in French history. WebsiteContact.

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