Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Erik R. Seeman's "Speaking with the Dead in Early America"

Erik R. Seeman is Professor of History at the University at Buffalo. He is author or editor of numerous books, including Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Speaking with the Dead in Early America, and reported the following:
Page 99 features several examples of what I call “talking gravestones”: markers that represent the dead as speaking or being spoken to.

The first marker on Page 99 is that of Barbary Weekes, a Massachusetts woman who died at age fifty-one in 1798. The stone’s epitaph has her address her fellow denizens of the burial ground: “O my friends I beg a place in your cold bed / That I may rest my limbs and akeing head.”

The second stone on Page 99 memorializes Phebe Gorham, who died on Cape Cod in 1775. Her marker quotes four lines from Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, the ten-thousand-line poem from the early 1740s that was one of the best-loved exemplars of the Graveyard School of English poetry and prose. The epitaph quotes from the poem in a way that encourages passersby to imagine Gorham speaking the words:
Henceforth my Soul in sweetest Union join

The two supports of human Happiness,

Which some erroneous think can never meet:

True Taste of Life, and constant thought of Death.
Markers like those for Weekes and Gorham appealed to mourners because they allowed loved ones to imagine a continuing relationship with the deceased. Starting in the second half of the eighteenth century, the bereaved increasingly visited cemeteries, where they prayed, meditated, and interacted with talking gravestones in a way that helped them maintain a connection with the dead. Such burial ground communion would become a central practice in what I refer to as the antebellum cult of the dead.

Page 99 thus exemplifies several important themes in the book. Methodologically, it demonstrates my use of material culture and literary sources. In addition to gravestones, the book examines embroidery, mourning portraiture, postmortem photography, and much more. And in addition to the Graveyard School, I analyze Gothic fiction, sentimental poetry, and other forms of imaginative literature.

Analytically, Page 99 is one step in the book’s journey of tracing the origins of the antebellum cult of the dead. Speaking with the Dead boldly reinterprets Protestantism as a religion in which the dead played a central role. This counters a long scholarly tradition that sees the Reformation as having successfully ended Catholic practices of maintaining relationships with the dead. My narrative begins with the English Reformation and demonstrates increasing interest in postmortem relationships, culminating in the nineteenth-century cult of the dead.

What Page 99 does not include is one of the book’s many examples of when people believed they were actually communicating with the dead: hearing the words of a ghost, or talking to a guardian angel, or experiencing a vision of heaven. But other than that, this page nicely represents the book’s main concerns.
Learn more about Speaking with the Dead in Early America at the University of Pennsylvania Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue