The rights of the dead (A book symposium comment on Erik Mueggler’s Songs for dead parents )
A comment on Mueggler, Erik. 2017. Songs for dead parents: Corpse, text, and world in Southwest China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
As coronavirus infections rose exponentially in New York City in March and April of 2020, those who watched found they had no language with which to represent the true scope of a viral pandemic, and particularly its mortality. On April 10, the Associated Press published drone photography of workers cloaked in white body suits and wearing masks as they stacked coffins into a freshly dug, long, wide trench on Hart Island, the site of the city’s cemetery (Sisak and Minchillo 2020). The article reported that the city morgues would now hold unclaimed bodies for only fourteen days, and that burials on the island were now taking place five days a week, burying twenty-five bodies a day. At the time, the city had not yet confirmed whether any of these burials were of COVID-19 victims, or whether these burials were performed so that morgues could accommodate anticipated victims. In response to questions posed, city officials stressed that COVID-19 dead might be temporarily buried and individually identified for later reburial by their families if they could not be held in morgues (Allen and Neuman 2020). The mayor, Bill de Blasio, insisted “We will have the [mortuary] capacity we need” to avoid mass burials (Allen and Neuman 2020). The Hart Island burials were, then, nothing more than the usual mass burials of bodies that were unclaimed by families, kin, or friends.
While there will never be any way of knowing, it now appears all too likely that this accelerated public mortuary process in April included COVID-19 deaths, and will continue to do so for some time. We can only ever know the true toll of a pandemic as excess death, that is, as a higher than normal mortality rate over a period of time. The New York City health department estimates that the number of excess deaths was 5,293 between March and May 2020, when the period to claim a body was shortened (Olson, Van Wye, and New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) COVID-19 Response Team 2020). While these deaths were predominantly those of elderly people, they are also likely to include many African Americans, frontline workers, and people living in poverty. The individual person has no rights as a legal subject after death when death is constructed as the end of an individual’s life (Renteln 2001). A person’s dead body is, by definition, dehumanized. As Agamben (1998) argues, it is this kind of foundational exclusion from society that makes one’s existence as a biographical person, so to speak, possible. Rousseau’s liberal subject who is “forced to be free” is constructed on the possibility of an unmourned, anonymous death (Rousseau  1978, 55). For that reason, liberal cultures cannot see the deeper injuries to the social body indicated and exacerbated by epidemic disease. These dead bodies cannot speak; they have no political agency, either individually or collectively. In moments of crisis, one is made aware of how this type of society denies the full personhood of the living in its selective acknowledgment of its obligations to the dead.
Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Allen, Greg, and Scott Neuman. 2020. “New York City Has Contingency Plan for Temporary Burials of COVID-19 Dead.” NPR.org. April 6, 2020. https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/04/06/828289698/new-york-city-plans-to-temporarily-bury-dead.
Olson, Donald R., Gretchen Van Wye, and New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) COVID-19 Response Team. 2020. “Preliminary Estimate of Excess Mortality During the COVID-19 Outbreak — New York City, March 11–May 2, 2020.” MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 69. https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6919e5.
Renteln, Alison Dundes. 2001. “The Rights of the Dead: Autopsies and Corpse Mismanagement in Multicultural Societies.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 100 (4): 1005–27. http://muse.jhu.edu/article/30729.
Sisak, Michael R., and John Minchillo. 2020. “As Virus Kills, NYC Shortens Deadline for Claiming Dead.” AP News. April 9, 2020. https://apnews.com/72024270f1b284e1b47415bf0c707f91.