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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .


The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change
Katherine Verdery

(New York: Columbia University Press, 1999)
185pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: $25.00/17.50; ISBN 0-231-11230-0.



In her book, the Political Lives of Dead Bodies, Verdery explores the curious phenomenon of exhuming and reburying both well-known and ordinary citizens with specific reference to Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism. She draws the reader's attention to the extent, symbolism and distinctive nature of the spatial relationships of graves and monuments in socialist countries.

She attempts to answer several questions, namely: why there has been so much activity around dead bodies in postsocialist countries; what the significance of this has been, as well as, why so-called dead body politics differs in postsocialist countries from other periods and places. In answer Verdery demonstrates that the restoration of honour (or expulsion) of certain corpses are markers of a change in values and social systems which are part of the larger process of postsocialist transformation. To highlight her point she uses examples ranging from the 1989 reinternment of dishonoured Hungarian communist leader Imre Nagy to the 1997 reburial of Bishop Inochentie Micu (after his body had been in Rome since 1768) in Translyvania.

Notably argues that reburials and the like are not simply about creating new political legitimacy in the postsocialist era. For Verdery the process is larger. The politics of reburials and dead bodies is about alternative worlds of meaning coming into conflict (p.76), as well as the reordering of social and spatial relations after the collapse of communism. As she eloquently notes in her conclusion, "Dead bodies have posthumous political life in the service of creating a newly meaningful universe...their political work is to institute ideas about morality...sanctify space anew...redefine the temporalities of daily life...fructify the enterprise of descendants" (p.127). This argument, and her attention to detail in her examples, is the strength of the book.

The complexity of her understanding of the subject matter is evident throughout her short (just over 120 pages), but dense, publication. Her argument is clear and she shows, as she says she will, that there is not a single answer or encompassing explanation for the way dead bodies have been put to use in postsocialist Europe. However, one cannot but feel that Verdery is only beginning her work on this fascinating subject and that there are deeper conclusions still to be drawn. Nonetheless, this in-depth examination leaves the reader with a plethora of thoughts, and sound conclusions, about the perplexing meaning of symbols in countries in transition.


Brandon Hamber
Centre for the Study of Violence & Reconciliation, South Africa




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