Monday, October 26, 2009

Uh, Wha?

Every once in a while, while researching, I come across something that surprises me. Sometimes it's something I thought I knew about, but didn't (i.e., I knew that Civil War soldiers were shipped back home for burial; what I didn't know is that they were often buried, then disinterred and then shipped back home*); other times, it's something written about something in such a way that I have to do a double take. For example,

Regardless of much manifestation of genuine grief at the death of colored persons during funerals, etc. the negro cemetery almost invariably presents an aspect of neglect and indifference closely bordering on the appearance of the potter's field. There is, therefore, in all probability not the aversion to a pauper burial among the negroes commonly met with among the white population.**

This is in an account relating the universal horrors of pauper burial, and how fabulous institutional insurance (read: life insurance) has been in eradicating the evils of potter's fields. There is much in this work that smacks of privilege, classism, racism, etc. There are some choice bits about the immodest excesses of Irish and Italian working-class funerals -- *especially* the Irish wakes, which are presented as exemplary examples of excess, followed by "oh, yeah... and the Italians." After repeatedly stating that humans have a universal and timeless fear of pauper burials, the author makes the above statement about African-Americans, essentially putting them in a non-human category and/or giving an example of why they are not human.

It surprised me. It shouldn't have, but it did. And I was reminded that times change, and that people have thought differently about things at different times in history. And that's not a bad thing to remember.

PS: Mr. Hoffman, the author of the work cited above, also states that "It is thus clearly shown that the persons of better character and mental or moral status made provision in a larger proportion of cases for depended survivors through insurance." Yep, only the morally superior buy insurance! No surprise, Mr. Hoffman worked for Prudential...

* Faust, Drew Gilpin (2008) This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. (Highly recommended, by the way)
** Hoffman, Frederick L. (1919) Pauper Burials and the Interment of the Dead in Large Cities.


squadratomagico said...

It's always "amusing" when economic means are confounded with moral fortitude, isn't it? Too bad that fallacy never seems to go out of fashion.

Bavardess said...

The Irish always know how to go out in style. On the Civil War corpse re-burials (which I didn't know about) - how did they manage the transport without things getting really nasty? Or did they always embalm or wait until the body had been reduced to bones?

Digger said...

Squadrato~ but isn't that the basis for the American dream? If you're morally upstanding and work hard, you can have everything! If you're morally destitute, or lazy (usually both, since they're related...) then you're doomed to fail. The fallacy lets clowns like the "cream of the crop" of the financial industry make bazillions for nothing, while hard-working folks at the bottom end who can't get ahead -- must be something wrong with them (lazy, vice, etc.). Maddening!

Bavardess, many were recovered after total decomposition, but many more were not. Embalming was expensive, so apparently done less often than I thought. There were shipping box liners that would seal everything inside the box during transportation, though I expect there were a few examples where people didn't buy them -- some families paid all they had to go to battlefields to find their relative's body. There was no rhyme or reason to where or if people were buried, and except for volunteers, recording who was where. It's really a fascinating story!