Roundtable Cultures and Corpses: Death in Three World Cities—New York, Alexandria, and Beijing

AHA Session 73
Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Chicago Ballroom B (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Nicholas Frey Marshall, Marist College
Peter J. Carroll, Northwestern University

Session Abstract

Death, The Urban and Modernity- Panel Abstract

            Based upon the theme of the American Historical Association’s 2012 Annual Meeting, “Networks and Communities,” this panel looks at the response of three different global communities to one of the universal experiences in the human condition: death. More particularly, each of these three papers analyzes a historical moment where cultural meanings of death were reexamined within an urban context. This confrontation between the old and the modern would have reverberations across the globe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

            Together, these three papers deal with many similar issues: the relationship between death and urban space; the perceptions of death within a distinctly urban culture; the changing ways in which urban authorities sought to “manage” death; and ultimately, even the role death itself played in creating a modern urban society. The study of three unique cities on three separate continents allows participants to illustrate similarities as well as differences in the ways death was perceived, dealt with and understood in three different, rapidly modernizing societies. Urban historians, historians of the body, and scholars interested in modernity would be interested in this broadly comparative panel.

            The first paper, by Joshua Britton, a Ph.D candidate at Lehigh University, explores the American rural cemetery movement through a case study of Brooklyn, New York in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century. Britton finds that the rural cemetery movement solved a pressing urban need by providing space for the disposal of bodies, but more vitally, the rural cemetery became a way to craft a distinctive civic identity, and to create local attachments between new urbanites and the city by tying them to the city through their relationship to the dead and the cemetery.

            The second paper, by Shane Minkin, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Swarthmore College, reimagines the relationship between the foreign and the local in Alexandria, Egypt, via the study of foreign cemeteries during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Minkin argues that the way that local authorities dealt with the death of foreigners in Alexandria obscured barriers between two groups, and allowed foreigners a way to claim their own space within the local community.

            Finally, Daniel Asen, a Ph.D candidate at Columbia University, explores how the police and press in early twentieth century Beijing dealt with sudden and unexpected deaths.  Asen argues that a concurrent rise of a modern police force and a sensationalistic print media together transformed the meaning of death. The police, for their part, developed  procedures for dealing with death that redefined what it meant for a death to be unexpected while the media transformed death into a central concern of urban life, one that the forces of order were expected to keep at bay. These two institutions together played an important role, according to Asen, in modernizing understandings of both death and the urban in modern China.

            Nicholas Marshall of Marist College will chair the panel, and Peter Carroll of Northwestern University will comment on the papers.

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