Death & politics.

Author:Bottum, Joseph

The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

--T.S. Eliot

San Francisco is a city without graves. In 1900, the board of supervisors passed an ordinance prohibiting burials within the city limits. In 1912, the board declared its additional aim to eliminate the city's previously existing cemeteries, and in 1914 removal notices were sent to all burial sites, declaring them "a public nuisance and a menace and detriment to the health and welfare of city dwellers."

A long series of legal battles followed, but by 1937 the San Francisco supervisors had triumphed, and the graveyards were gone. The suburb of Colma--a two-square-mile town in which 73 percent of the land is cemeteries--took many of the bodies but not all. Perhaps eleven thousand corpses still lie unmarked beneath the Lincoln Park golf course, over near the coast, and the broken headstones were used as rubble in Buena Vista Park, where fragments of their epitaphs can still be read in the retaining walls and drain gutters.

The last remaining exceptions to San Francisco's ban of the dead are a few old Catholic tombs in the grotto at the Mission Dolores, a federal military cemetery in the Presidio, and a tiny columbary in the Richmond district, left after the Odd Fellows' graveyard around it had been evacuated. Efforts have been made in recent years to establish a new pet cemetery in the city, row after row of small markers to show the passing of dogs and cats and domesticated parrots. But human interment remains illegal, and, for most residents, San Francisco's only public reminder of death is the Golden Gate Bridge, a famous magnet for suicides, the jumpers' broken bodies pulled under by the current and lost in the north Pacific.

In its way, San Francisco's turn against graves provides a nice synopsis of the twentieth century, all the forces of modern times pushing toward a single end. So, for example, whatever politicians may have thought they governed, American cities were actually driven, for much of the twentieth century, by the juggernaut of modern city planners and public-health officers, their eyes gleaming with visions of Tomorrowland's immaculate metropolis. So, too, the great engine of twentieth-century finance put enormous pressure on real estate--skyscrapers! bank towers! the downtown office!--in narrow urban spaces like the Golden Gate peninsula.

For that matter, San Francisco was merely echoing the twentieth century's general conviction that the nineteenth century had taken funerals far too seriously--the Edwardians' general belief that their Victorian parents had been a profoundly sick people: as infatuated with displaying death as they were obsessed with hiding sex.

Still, even the most ardent modernist might feel some misgivings about a rejection of the dead as complete as San Francisco's. And such misgivings reflect, however dimly, a deep political insight--for a city without cemeteries has failed, somehow, at one of the first reasons for having cities at all. Somewhere in those banished graveyards was a metaphysical ground for politics, and buried in them was a truth that too much of modern political theory seems to have forgotten: The living give us crowds. The dead give us communities.


Society rests on the death of men," the Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once opined. He probably intended nothing more than a sour comment on the mass of humankind: that violent, childish, unpleasant crew, never to be fully trusted. But it seems, nonetheless, a curious formulation. In what sense could society rest on the death of men, rather than being damaged or threatened by human mortality?

There are too many movable parts for all this to come clear in an instant. It's like one of those giant jigsaw puzzles, thousands of pieces scattered across the table--except we've lost the box they came in and can't quite remember the picture they're supposed to make.

Here, for instance, is a piece: The question of private property has always been one of the central concerns of political philosophy. If death and politics are joined down at the root of human experience, then we should find death involved somewhere in ideas of property--intruding and impinging on any theory of ownership.

And, sure enough, death soon appears, as questions of property quickly raise questions of inheritance. As it happens, the relation probably began the other way around. As Holmes himself notes in his famous 1881 study of the common law, the legal analysis of inheritance came first, historically--and definitions of property and contracts in early English law grew from concerns about inheritance: the attempt of dying parents to pass their possessions on to their children, the attempt of living children to preserve the gains of their deceased parents.

Holmes was interested primarily in the transmission of English common law into the American legal context, and so he made no particular use of this fact that common law about inheritance precedes common law about property. But taken simply on its face, it seems deeply suggestive about the priority of death in our experience of social organization.

Unfortunately, suggestive is all it can be. No single piece will reveal the whole picture or solve the entire puzzle. Later in this essay, I take up what may be the largest piece--the fact that, at a very abstract level of logic, freedom of the will is closely tied to a world with death in it: If nothing really dies, then we have no freedom of choice; if we lack significant freedom of choice, then death will prove unreal.

The argument is complicated, and, even when complete, it leaves us a long way from demonstrating the connection between death and political society. Nonetheless, it reveals a pattern that will play itself out at far less abstract levels. Ancient Roman Stoicism is a good example: A philosophy that generally disparages grief and downplays death will eventually arrive at a denial of free will. Early modern Ottoman Islam and Buddhist Tibet form, perhaps, other examples: A culture that generally embraces fatalism will also tend to deny meaningful death.

Even free will, however, is only one more suggestive part of death's relation to politics. Think of all this in terms of the violence praised by a surprisingly large range of modern political theories. Why does death manifest itself--a sudden, miraculous, culture-forming power--whenever a thinker turns against the Enlightenment? What logic compels political philosophers, from the most radical right to the most radical left, to embrace murder when they renounce the poverty and weightlessness of modern culture? And why does literature show us again and again the characters, from Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov on, who imagine they can resolve the anxieties of modernity by drenching it in blood?

Or think of death's role in terms of the odd, disturbing moments we always encounter in ancient texts. What exactly is the outrage that Achilles commits in the Iliad when he drags Hector's corpse in angry rings around the walls of Troy? For that matter, why does Achilles--Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles / Who would not live long--choose the immortality of fame from death in battle, instead of the long and happy, quiet and soon-forgotten, life he was offered by the gods?

Think of this, too, in terms of the family. In all Western cultures, a person was once "gathered to his fathers." But constant relocation and the urban distaste for cemeteries have made care of graves difficult. Why shouldn't we expect family tradition to weaken at the same time as family graves begin to disappear?

Indeed, the logic loops back on itself to spiral downward: The failure to maintain the family graves increasingly leaves the family name without meaning, and the emptiness of the family name increasingly becomes a reason not to have family graves. The modern failure of funerals serves as both a cause and a symptom of the shattering of culture, first into the nuclear family, then into atomized individuals, and at last into nothingness--with, for instance, the increasing use of "anonymous death," a European innovation now beginning to appear in America, where the dead are abandoned without ceremony in deliberately unmarked graves, or their corpses are cremated with the ashes spread across large and indifferent spaces.


None of these individual pieces--the origins of property law, the logic of free will, the murderousness of radical politics, the ancient literary hints, the weakened family--are sufficient to show the exact relation of death to political community. With enough of them put together, however, a picture starts to appear.

What I am proposing is a complete revaluation of political theory: a return to an extra-political, even metaphysical, foundation for thought about politics. Death--the death not of ourselves but of others--becomes the key for understanding human association when we grasp three propositions about death and politics:

(1) The losses human beings suffer are the deepest reason for culture,

(2) The fundamental pattern for any community is a congregation at a funeral,

(3) A healthy society requires a lively sense of the reality and continuing presence of the dead.

Consider that first proposition. Political theorists have always tended to take fear--a concern with our own mortality--as the chief manifestation of death in the political realm. Modern liberalism long ago rejected the old magical accounts of political formation: that the gods themselves established Gilgamesh's city, for instance, or that the priestly anointing of Menes, the first pharaoh, sanctified the rule of Egypt. And as a consequence of this liberal turn, our explanations for the prehistoric beginnings of culture have grown a little thin. Still, the general modern view (in the standard reading of Hobbes' Leviathan, for example) seems plausible enough: Civilization began with a primordial world of fear in which...

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