T. Barnum’s first exhibit was a blind, crooked, and shrivelled old woman, a hundred and sixty-one years old, and his second was her dissection, conducted in an amphitheatre on Broadway in front of more than a thousand New Yorkers, who paid fifty cents each to see her get cut up. Her name was Joice Heth, and the story she’d told, long before she met Barnum, was that she was born in Madagascar in 1674, kidnapped into slavery in 1689, and transported to Virginia, where she became the property of George Washington’s father. She said she’d been in the room when George Washington was born—“little Georgy,” she called him—and that she’d been the first to swaddle him. “In fact,” she said, “I raised him.”
Was she alive or was she dead? She looked like a mummy. “She is a mere skeleton covered with skin,” one observer remarked. She weighed forty-six pounds. She was paralyzed; she had no teeth; her eyes had sunk into her skull; her skin was like India rubber. She was a relic of the United States’ most famous relic, as unloved as he was loved. Sometimes she said she’d fed George Washington at her breast, though she would have been fifty-eight when he was born, in 1732. In honor of the hundredth anniversary of that event, in 1832, Northerners had tried to get Washington’s bones moved from Mount Vernon to a tomb beneath the U.S. Capitol, arguing that his “sacred remains” were a “treasure beyond all price” that belonged not to the South but to the nation. That hadn’t worked out; Washington’s bones stayed put. But, spying an opportunity, Joice Heth’s owner, a man from Kentucky, had taken her on the road, along with a stack of documents to prove her age, including an ancient bill of sale, treasure beyond price, all of which he sold, in June, 1835, for a thousand dollars, to P. T. Barnum, who, when he met Heth, was twenty-five, running a grocery store in Manhattan, and bored.
Barnum later claimed—and still later denied—that he starved Heth and pulled out all her teeth to make her look older. He billed her as “The Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World.” She was the sensation of the age—an age obsessed with fakery, ancestry, monuments, and the walking dead. In February, 1836, having been exhibited for nine months, six days a week, she died. Her corpse was carried by a horse-drawn sleigh to Barnum’s boarding house. He stowed her in a small, cold room and began selling tickets to her autopsy, although, after the surgeon declared that she could not possibly be a day older than eighty, Barnum said that her death was a hoax and that he’d given the surgeon a different dead body; Heth was alive and well and living in Connecticut, on her way to becoming a hundred and sixty-two.
There are only so many ways to deal with the dead: remember or forget, put up statues or pull them down, bury or burn. Heth is an edge case, like a head on a pike, or a mass grave, or a man hanging from a gallows, a display of decay, a spectacular atrocity. But the edge is not so far from the viscera. Frederick Douglass called slavery a tomb. The way Americans still bury their dead is a consequence of the war that was fought to end it.
“We cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground,” Lincoln said at Gettysburg. But bodies could be embalmed and brought home, to be seen, one last time, beloved and mourned. A business grew. Before the war, families washed and shrouded and carried their own dead, burying them in boxes built of softwoods like pine and cedar. During the war, families hired undertakers to preserve their sons long enough to bring them home from distant battlefields on railway cars. “Night and day journeys a coffin,” Walt Whitman wrote. Gravestones filled the fields like poppies. There were fields of black and fields of white. In 1868, when the radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens was on his deathbed, weeks after the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, which he’d drafted, he insisted on being buried in an integrated cemetery. He wrote his own epitaph:
I repose in this quiet and secluded spot,
Not from any natural preference for solitude
But, finding other Cemeteries limited as to Race,
by Charter Rules,
I have chosen this that I might illustrate
in my death,
The principles which I advocated
through a long life:
equality of man before his creator.
Cemeteries remained segregated for another century.
After the war, coffins and cemeteries got fancier and embalming more elaborate. There is no need to preserve a body that has no distance to travel before burial, but preparing the dead by pickling them and sealing them in boxes made of hardwoods and unbreachable metals turned out to be a good business: the denial of decay. The price of dying rose. It used to be that you pretty much had to be famous to get your name on your grave; after the Civil War, nearly everyone did, except the poorest of the poor, interred in potter’s fields. Then, too, remains were dug up, and moved: it became fashionable to relocate the eminent dead to better quarters, to elevate them above the more ordinary departed. Very often, monuments were built in places that lacked the bodies, creating more permanent markers.
In 1836, the year Joice Heth died, George Washington memorialists, unable to get the President’s bones moved from Mount Vernon, announced a competition to design the Washington Monument. In the age of Jim Crow, the Confederacy followed a similar practice. The corpse of Jefferson Davis, buried in New Orleans at his death, in 1889, was removed from his vault four years later and carried, by windowed railroad car, to Richmond, a former capital of the Confederacy. New Orleans, bereft of the corpse, built a monument to Davis. At its dedication, white schoolchildren dressed in red, white, and blue stood in the formation of a Confederate flag.
All these burials and reburials were a danger to public health, according to advocates of cremation, who argued that burning the dead would put a stop to the dreadful practice of “horrid exhumations and mangling of remains.” A sudden American vogue for cremation took place in 1874, the year the New York Cremation Society was formed. (The Times published one article about cremation in 1873, and seventeen in 1874.) To counter the objection that cremation would interfere with resurrection, the Reverend O. B. Frothingham assured Americans that “to recover a shape from a heap of ashes can be no more difficult than to recover it from a mound of dust.” Cremationists, spurning the open pyre of the ancients, built an industrial-age cremation furnace, which was used for the first time in 1876. As the religious historian Stephen Prothero has argued, Gilded Age advocates for cremation hoped to purify the remains of the wealthy, by fire, and keep them separate from the rotting, polluted remains of the buried masses.
The Gilded Age cremation movement failed, largely because of the extraordinary power of the growing burial business. “There is nothing too good for the dead,” the author of “The Modern Funeral” wrote, in 1900. And yet the dead were very often left behind, especially those descended from the enslaved. During the Great Migration, millions of African-Americans departed their homes in the South, abandoning the remains of their ancestors in search of a future for their children. In 1945, Zora Neale Hurston asked W. E. B. Du Bois, “Why do you not propose a cemetery for the illustrious Negro dead?” Hurston wanted to move the remains of Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass to a site in Florida, and to add black leaders as they fell, creating a place of pilgrimage for a scattered people. “Let no Negro celebrities, no matter what financial condition they might be in at death, lie in inconspicuous forgetfulness,” she wrote Du Bois. “You must see what a rallying spot that would be for all that we want to accomplish and do.” Hurston’s plan was never realized. But the dead did play a rallying role in the civil-rights movement: black deaths mattered. After fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was tortured, shot, and thrown into a river in Mississippi, his mother had his body shipped to Chicago, where she had his disfigured and decayed remains displayed in an open casket, seen by tens of thousands of mourners.
Throughout the nineteen-forties, most American cemeteries were subject to the same racially restrictive covenants as housing, and were just as resistant to integration, even after courts deemed this practice a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Black graves were more likely to be unmarked, their occupants buried in the old ways, a traditional “homegoing.” In the fifties, consumer conformity drove the conventions of burial; the rising cost of dying outpaced the rising cost of living. Black funeral directors sold the same wares. “Negro undertakers gross more than $120 million for 150,000 funerals each year,”Ebony reported in 1953, in an article titled “Death Is Big Business.” “If a person drives a Cadillac, why should he have a Pontiac funeral?” one funeral director asked Jessica Mitford, as she reported in “The American Way of Death,” in 1963. What sounded like a hoax worthy of Barnum had become by then the way a great many Americans buried their dead—on satin sheets in stainless-steel caskets, with hymns piped in their crypts through high-fidelity stereo, beneath vast, manicured lawns. “The desirable crypts are now in the new air-conditioned section,” another funeral director told Mitford when she updated the book.
There were, nevertheless, dissenters, a cadaver counterculture. In 1971, the “Last Whole Earth Catalog” offered instructions for a “Do-It-Yourself Burial” that you could arrange for fifty dollars. Cremation is generally cheaper than burial, and it makes a certain sense if you have no intention of maintaining the geraniums on the family plot. Long forbidden in the Jewish and Muslim faiths, and disparaged by Christians, it slowly became more acceptable. By 1980, the cremation rate in the United States, which had been virtually zero, had risen to nearly ten per cent. For people with no religious faith, cremation proved particularly appealing. (That number is growing, fast: one in three younger millennials has either never or rarely attended a religious service.) In the Gilded Age, the rich were the ones who wanted to be cremated; in the Second Gilded Age, cremation is the only kind of end the poor can afford. Stagnant wages and the financial crisis of 2008 appear to have accelerated the flames: people who’d lost their homes could hardly afford mahogany coffins. In 2013, Time declared cremation “the new American way of death.”
Ashes scatter. In 2016, for the first time, more than half the American dead were cremated, marking a change to the landscape of every city and town—tombstones uncarved, graveyards abandoned—and a weakening of the ties that bind the living to the dead. The dead are a people and the past is a place that half of Americans no longer visit, except to topple stones.
Caitlin Doughty founded the Order of the Good Death, a “death acceptance collective,” in 2011, not long after she finished mortuary school. The death-acceptance movement is sometimes called the “death positive” movement, and it’s something like the “fat positive” and “sex positive” movements, except that it has ancient roots, since the search for a good death is older than the oldest bones. Members of the Order of the Good Death include death professionals with titles like “street anatomist,” “eco-death revolutionary,” and “death midwife.” They believe, according to the collective’s Web site, that “there is a revolution afoot in the way our society handles death” which has to do with rootlessness, secularism, and globalism, developments that unhitch children from their parents, believers from their faiths, and people from their homes. All these things might easily be considered devastating, but members of the Order of the Good Death consider them emancipating: “All of a sudden, we are able to choose the rituals we perform with our dead and how we dispose of dead bodies.”
“From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death” (Norton) is Doughty’s tour of the death ways of other peoples, from Bolivia to Barcelona. Doughty, who styles herself after Morticia Addams, is a sort of cheerful and companionable Grim Reaper. In Crestone, Colorado, population a hundred and fifty, she visits the only sanctioned open-air pyre in the United States (she calls the town “a morbid Mayberry”). She describes a structure of piñon and spruce, sitting in a field of black-eyed Susans, that costs five hundred dollars (technically a donation “to cover wood, fire department presence, stretcher, and land use”). The average burial, by contrast, costs between eight and ten thousand dollars. The pyre sounds beautiful, especially when compared with industrial crematoriums—big, ugly buildings often found next to scrap heaps and junk yards, off limits to mourners, and with “cremation tribute centers,” which charge upward of five thousand dollars for a more sanitized experience of the burning of the dead.
At Doughty’s own funeral home, in Los Angeles, she, like other American funeral directors, is required by law to pulverize the fragments of bone that come out of the cremation machine with the ashes. In Japan, where the cremation rate is 99.9 per cent, Doughty reports on a ceremony known askotsuage, in which the mourners, each with a pair of chopsticks, pick up the bone fragments, starting with the feet and moving to the skull, and place them in an urn. In the southern part of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, Doughty visits families who live with their mummified dead for months or even years, dressing and feeding them, until the dead are ready to go into their graves. In North Carolina, at the Urban Death Project, she helps compost a corpse, an environmentally sustainable process known as “recomposition.” Instead of ashes in urns, mourners end up with bags of rich, dark soil to add to their own gardens, so that, for instance, “a mother who loved to garden can, herself, give rise to new life.”
A bad version of this book would read like “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” But Doughty chronicles each of these practices with tenderheartedness, a technician’s fascination, and an unsentimental respect for grief. One premise of her work is that dead bodies shouldn’t be carried off and hidden from families, pumped up with fluids and slathered with makeup: mourners should be allowed to see and touch the dead and to prepare the body. Many grieving people will agree. I held my father’s hand as he died, the two of us, alone. I stroked his fingers, before, and after. I didn’t see my mother’s dead body until I saw her in her coffin, waxen and unrecognizable, smiling a half smile she had never smiled before. I know that he is dead. I have never quite accepted that she is.
The year before Thomas Mira y Lopez’s father, Rafael, got sick, he planted a buckeye seed on his farm in Pennsylvania. A buckeye tree can grow to forty-five feet and live for eighty years. After Rafael died, Thomas’s mother took him to visit the tree every year. “Come see Dad’s tree,” she’d say. She had come to think of the buckeye as him. “The hands that scooped out the pocket of earth and laid the seed to rest are now the buckeye’s leaves, his limbs the branches, the mind that decided to plant the tree exactly there are its roots,” Mira y Lopez writes, in “The Book of Resting Places: A Personal History of Where We Lay the Dead” (Counterpoint). Mira y Lopez hated the annual pilgrimage to the buckeye. He was only twenty when his father died, still in the throes of post-adolescent rebellion, and every way his mother saw that death was a way that he did not. “I cannot see the buckeye the way my mother sees it,” he writes. “My father does not stand tall within it, this ugly thing choking the water and stealing sunlight away from the evergreen.” He also didn’t like it when, two years after his father died, his mother bought a memorial tree in Central Park, a horse chestnut. He decided to go in search of better ways to remember the dead.
“The Book of Resting Places” is Mira y Lopez’s account of his travels, from a cemetery to a crematorium to a cryonics company. Like Doughty, he’s looking for the good death, somewhere, anywhere. “I even have a mummy out back,” the proprietor of a rock shop on the side of a two-lane highway in Arizona tells him. “You wanna see?” Doughty is a death professional. There’s something warmer about Mira y Lopez’s writing, as a chronicle of his own mourning, and there’s also something colder, for the same reason. On visiting his father in an I.C.U., after he’d had brain surgery, he writes, “There wasn’t much to do: hold my father’s hand, read Graham Greene, watch soccer or CNN, masturbate in the shower, nap, wipe the sweat from my father’s forehead, play solitaire on my iPod.” He was there when his father died. He pried open his father’s hand, pressed a penny into his palm, and closed it. “He might need this,” he told his mother. He does not know why he did this. “I was not being me, but watching myself be me,” he writes, and he’s still watching. The night before his father died, he had looked back at him before leaving the room and closing the door: “I saw his body propped up on the bed, his shrunken torso and caved-in head, and I realized he would have to go through the night alone.” The trouble is, we all go through that night alone.
The idea that the disposition of the dead, loved or unloved, is a matter of personal choice, absent the commitment of belief and the burden of history, is an illusion of a cockeyed and shortsighted present. “The dead like to stay close to the living,” the literary scholar Robert Pogue Harrison once argued, in “The Dominion of the Dead,” an account of the importance of burial and of burying places in human history. To be buried is to hope for resurrection, but to bury the dead is to build a future on top of the past. A grave is a monument. So is a tree. There are other ways to dispose of the dead, worse ways and better ways, but there’s no escaping the reach of the dead that haven’t found peace.
The dead cannot vote, but they are very often recruited to political causes, armies of the night. The latest conflicts, between people who march in the streets carrying photographs of black men shot by the police and people who circle monuments draped in Confederate flags, are in some ways battles between the newly dead and the long-ago dead, between the present and the past. It remains to be seen whether the struggle over the dead will grow fiercer, and wilder, the past made into a mummy, carted and carried, displayed and dissected.
Earlier this year, New Orleans’s Jefferson Davis monument was taken down, on the orders of the city, after a series of protests. Its current location is a well-kept secret. Three years ago, archeologists at Mount Vernon began excavating a slave cemetery on a hill south of George Washington’s tomb. “Forgotten No Longer” is the name they’ve given to the project. They suspect that there are about a hundred bodies buried there; they’ve located forty-six, among them the graves of sixteen children. No graves have been opened, no remains disturbed. The dead cannot be desegregated. But history has got to be, or else Americans will keep on clobbering one another with the bones of their ancestors.
Joice Heth is not buried at Mount Vernon. The best archival evidence—painstakingly compiled by the historian Benjamin Reiss—suggests that Heth was born about 1755 and that by the seventeen-nineties she was the property of a Revolutionary War veteran named William Heth, a petty civil servant from Richmond who barely knew George Washington but who regularly dined out on lavishly embroidered stories about his visits to Mount Vernon. Joice Heth’s own tall tales, Reiss thinks, began as mockery of her puffed-up and ridiculous owner, a theory that may or may not be true but that is far less painful to think about than the ways she was used and abused by Barnum, who, in abolitionist towns, claimed that he was using the money he made by exhibiting her to buy her great-great-grandchildren out of slavery.
P. T. Barnum died in his bed in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on April 7, 1891. “The scene at the deathbed was deeply pathetic,” the Times reported. His rise, the obituary reported, had begun with “a remarkable negro woman.” He’d made his own funeral arrangements: “In accordance with the expressed wish of the deceased he will be buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery, where he recently had erected a massive granite monument.” Barnum once said he’d arranged for Joice Heth to be buried in his family plot. He was lying. ♦