Blog | April 2018

The Dead and the Living

by Peter van der Veer


Jesus said 'Let the dead bury the dead' (Luke 9:60). But, obviously, they cannot. They need the living to do it for them. What strikes the reader of the overwhelming historical and anthropological literature on death and the disposal of the dead is the deep concern that most societies have in taking care of the bodies of the dead. In his monumental book on The Work of the Dead (Princeton 2015) the historian Thomas Laqueur takes as his starting point an anecdote about the Greek Cynic philosopher Diogenes who supposedly has said that when he died his body should be tossed over the city walls for beasts to scavenge. Why should he or anyone else care what became of his corpse? In his research on mainly Europe’s cultural history from the Greeks till today Laqueur shows that almost everyone at any point of history does care. In recent ethnographies, such as Eric Mueggler’s Songs for Dear Parents (Chicago 2017) about the Lolopo in Yunnan (China), and Piers Viterbsky’s Living without the Dead (Chicago 2017) about the Sora of Orissa (India), or in Matthew Engelke’s current research on secular humanist funerals in Great Britain, we find a variety of deep societal concerns about taking care of human remains. This scholarship is all about death practices in times of relative peace.

With warfare another concern comes up: the locating of the missing war dead. When peace returns a huge effort is made to locate the dead and give them a proper burial. Identification tags (‘dog tags) have been in common use for more than a century to help identify fallen soldiers. Northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands have huge cemeteries for the war dead of the First and the Second World War. Many of them remained unidentified like the 130.000 whose bones one can see through the small lower windows of the alcoves of the Ossuary of Douaumont near Verdun in France, but the effort goes on. The German War Graves Commission still locates 40.000 missing dead a year. There is an overwhelming need in many societies to find the dead which is more recently supported by advances in DNA research in forensic science. This search can have tremendous political consequences like in the aftermath of the Civil War in Spain or in the aftermath of the American War in Vietnam. The politics of finding the dead and dealing with the dead is an important topic in our Religious Diversity Department.

Although questions about the living conditions of refugees who have been forced to migrate are of paramount concern one should not forget the dead. The concern for connecting again with those who have fled from somewhere and have died on the way grows when others have found a place to settle or have not fled at all. This January Tam Ngo and I did fieldwork in Vung Tau (no diacritics). At the time of the victory of the North Vietnamese communists in 1975 it was a sleepy fishing area on the South Vietnamese coast, inhabited largely by Sino-Vietnamese and by Catholics who had fled in 1954 from North Vietnam out of fear for communist atheism. Now it boasts an enormous statue of Christ and a huge number of catholic churches.  The Sino-Vietnamese presence is hardly noticeable anymore, since many of them were pushed out around 1978-79 as a result of the growing antagonism between China and Vietnam. Those who wanted to flee from communist rule used the fishing boats of the area. Many perished in the sea. Nowadays one finds not only catholic churches but also a great number of Buddhist shrines for those who died in the sea. They are frequented by relatives who either still live in Vietnam or have made a living abroad. We also interviewed a female North Vietnamese army officer in a village nearby who had become a telepathic medium for reaching and locating fallen soldiers. In Vietnamese society one is struck by the frenzied looking for the dead of all sides.

With people on the move in perilous conditions, like with the Vietnamese boat refugees of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the question becomes what happens with those who do not make it to the safe shore. Amade M’charek, an anthropologist of science at the University of Amsterdam and an expert on forensic research, is currently looking at what happens with the bodies of the migrants who have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea and are washed ashore.  Since 2014 more than 30.000 people have drowned on their flight in the Mediterranean. Given the enormous importance of locating and identifying the dead she and her collaborators have taken an important initiative. I would like to draw your attention to their fundraising campaign aimed at building a cemetery for burying drowned migrants who wash up in the south of Tunisia. Recently they initiated the foundation Stichting Drowned Migrant Cemetery to help realising a dignified cemetery for drowned migrants in the town of Zarzis (South Tunisia).  In addition, they are in conversation with international NGOs to start a process of registration and documentation of these bodies. They hope to collect the necessary 40,000 euros with a social media campaign. On the following website you will find background information for this initiative: (in Dutch, English and French).



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