Category: Features

Bodies in the Way: Delhi’s Dead and the Pressures of Space

In 1930, Delhi’s residents were sorely in need of a new hospital. The city’s population had ballooned by more than 30% over the previous decade, but its infrastructure had failed to keep pace.1 The overburdened Civil Hospital warned that it was struggling to provide care to twice as many patients as it was designed to… Read more →

Tracing the Red in “Redbone”: Colorism and Misogyny in Black History

“My peanut butter chocolate cake with Kool-Aid” – this line from the 2016 song “Redbone” by Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) describes the appearance of a light-skinned Black woman with a bright red undertone to her skin and hair: a “redbone.” The figure of the untrustworthy “redbone” woman is a common theme in contemporary rap… Read more →

Dead Babies in Boxes: Dealing with the Consequences of Interrupted Reproduction

One morning in June 2019, two city workers in Lyon, France, pulled a plastic bag out of the river that runs through the city center and found it contained the body of a “late term fetus or a newborn baby thought to be less than a day old.” Such occurrences have a long history in… Read more →

Hygeia: Women in the Cemetery Landscape

We’ve all seen her. Hunched over the grave of an important poet. Standing meekly atop deceased philosophers, businessmen, and writers alike – head in hands and despairing. The Mourning Woman is a motif found throughout nineteenth-century Western cemeteries. She emerged during a revival of classical symbolism in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gravestone iconography. She draws inspiration… Read more →

Burying the Dead, and Then Digging Them Up

About a week after my partner Clayton was murdered in 2015, I went back to his gravesite with one of his brothers to visit. The cemetery, located in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, was a peaceful place, with expansive lawns and even some trees that afforded much-needed shade near Clayton’s burial site. Clayton’s headstone… Read more →

Fresh to Death: African Americans and RIP T-Shirts

My 28-year-old nephew, Willie Lee “Chill” Oglesby, Jr., was murdered on November 8, 2017. One of the first things that his mother and my sister, Aleta (affectionately called “Snooky”), did was to commission Novel T’s to create 44 official RIP (Rest in Peace) T-shirts. As ritualized mourning wear, all of Willie’s immediate and extended kin,… Read more →

News from the Dead

On December 14, 1650, 22-year old Anne Greene was led up the gallows in Oxford. She had been charged with infanticide; after sleeping with her employer’s grandson, she gave birth to a child—one she insisted was stillborn—whose body had been found “covered…with dust and rubbish” in the outhouse where she delivered it.1 After praying and… Read more →

The Deathbed and the Sound of Rebirth

What is the soundscape of the deathbed? Most often, for Chinese Buddhists, it has involved the sound of human voices chanting the name of Amitābha Buddha. According to the core Pure Land scriptures, Amitābha vowed to save all those who called on him, ensuring that after death they would be reborn in his Pure Land,… Read more →

“Heroic Effort Beyond the Call of Duty”: Death Care Workers and the 1947 Texas City Disaster

On April 16, 2020, the New York Times published an op-ed about the challenges facing overwhelmed funeral directors around the country during the COVID-19 epidemic. In “hot spots” like New York, Detroit, and New Orleans, funeral home staff are working long hours to pick up and prepare the remains of those killed by the disease;… Read more →

Death, Distance, and the Digital World

My neighbor died as I was finishing this essay. We were two weeks into the stay-at-home order during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. When the ambulance came, I stood on the front porch and watched the paramedics don hazmat suits before entering his home. His wife stood on the street as they loaded him into… Read more →