What Do We Do with Our Dead?

tags: death, mortuary

Jill Lepore is a staff writer and a professor of history at Harvard. “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is her latest book. Thumbnail Image -  By Jesster79, CC BY-SA 3.0

P.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. ...

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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