The Vital Dead: Making Meaning, Identity, and Community through Cemeteries.
Alison Bell, Department of Anthropology, Washington and Lee University, and Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
Abstract. In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and well beyond, profound changes are underway in cemeteries: grave markers are still etched with images of bibles and flowers, but motorcycles, monsters, cats, and footballs are also appearing. Inscriptions ("Gone Hunting for the Lord" or "Had a Good Ride") and objects lefts on grave sites — bird feeders, whirligigs, letters to the deceased — echo this florescence. The Vital Dead, a book VFH fellow Alison Bell is writing under contract with the University of Tennessee Press, interprets these movements largely as a struggle against alienation, with people weaving loved ones into social webs that transcend the grave. The dead are vital both because they’re often imagined as cognizant, lithe, and accessible (if invisible), and also because they’re central to the creation of identity and community among the living. Because these sites of memorialization allow the visible championing of particular cultural values, they are also windows into historic as well as contemporary claims and counterclaims to visions of the future. Bell, who teaches anthropology at Washington & Lee University, will provide an overview of the book manuscript generally, and then specifically discuss case studies of African American burying grounds in the Valley.