In This Review

The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change
The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change
By Katherine Verdery
Columbia University Press, 1999, 208 pp

Were Verdery not one of the premier anthropologists and specialists on eastern Europe, most readers might not take seriously a book that the author herself half-jokingly calls a study in political necrophilia. But this exploration of the reasons people dig up the bones of political heroes, martyrs, and foes and then parade them around or ceremoniously rebury them is entirely serious. Verdery not only reflects on the obvious instances, such as the battle over Lenin's waxy remains and the 1989 tour of Prince Lazar's 600-year-old bones to all the parts of Yugoslavia claimed by the Serbs. She examines in detail more subtle examples as well, such as the displaced skeleton of the eighteenth-century bishop Inochentie Micu, which was moved from Rome to Romania in 1997. Dead bodies, the author argues, serve as particularly powerful symbols stirred by psychological needs intensified in times of great upheaval, such as the postsocialist transition of the 1990s. In an extraordinarily ingenious exegesis, she shows how this phenomenon has helped recast national histories (albeit in ways that often substitute one abuse of the past with another), calm social disorientation in the face of tremendous change, and even wage battles over "property restitution, political pluralization, religious renewal, and national conflicts tied to building nation-states."