Actual decomposing bodies

National Soldier Lot, Allegheny Cemetery

 

Actual decomposing bodies

I am gearing up to do a DH project which has some interesting parallels with Decomposing Bodies, the Bertillon project about which Jen and others have been posting.

My project will analyze the federal soldiers lot at Allegheny Cemetery, which, it turns out, is part of the national soldier cemetery system initially established during the U.S. Civil War.  This was the first time in the modern world that a nation-state assumed responsibility for its war dead and established a national system for burying and protecting its dead soldiers.  To my knowledge no national cemetery in the U.S. has been systematically studied – not as an archive of bodies in any case. 

The soldier lot in Allegheny Cemetery was first established during the Civil War as a local initiative and then federalized in 1875.  It’s a hybrid – an interesting intersection of local and national space/authority.  The graves are laid out on flat ground in a neat grid, with nearly identical white headstones, around an allegorical monument to the Union in the center.  The strong impression of uniformity and unity around a common cause contrasts starkly with the family plots on the hillside nearby, which are individualized and laid out in deliberately irregular patterns.

But this landscape of unity in death is deeply misleading.  The tidy national “plot” or storyline overrides the local plots – the messy, often heartbreaking stories of the individual men (and one woman) whose bodies migrated to this small patch of ground.  My preliminary spot research is suggesting that many, if not most, of the soldiers who were buried here died in local camps or hospitals or soldier homes and ended up in this lot because they had nowhere else to go.  Of course the project will help confirm or revise this hypothesis, but it’s safe to say that in the process of tracking these soldiers in life and death we will be tracking an often tragic history of displacement, in both its physical and metaphysical dimensions.

So what does this have to do with Bertillon cards?  The Bertillon cards were a system for attaching metadata (measurements) to photographs (of faces).  The instrumental purpose of the metadata was to organize the photographs into retrievable files, but in a larger sense the metadata and image worked reciprocally to create a unique personal identity.  Similarly the headstones in the soldier lot attach metadata to the graves – the metadata being a number, a name, and a regiment (if known).  The headstone points to the grave, just as the measurements pointed to the face. Headstone and grave work reciprocally to perpetuate a unique identity after death; if one or the other is removed, the person is lost.  In both the soldier lot and the Bertillon card collection, the constructed identity is drastically reductive, with the person’s life shrunk to a narrowly defined set of data collected or manufactured by the apparatus of the state.  A major difference between the two systems is the visibility of the body: the body materializes in the head shot on the Bertillon card, while the body quite literally disappears into the grave.  The headstone is a “card” of sorts but by necessity must also serve as an image, a sign that combines contiguity (at the “head” of the body) and substitution (the upright stone “standing in” for the upright person and for the portal through which the person must pass). 

In this open-air archive of unseen bodies, the headstone is essential but remarkably fragile.  Witness the nearby veterans lot, created under the auspices of the Union veterans organization the Grand Army of the Republic, where the once upright headstones have been pushed flat into the ground and their metadata have become unreadable.  Identity is perpetuated in the soldier lot only because the headstones have been replaced and reinstalled several times, made to look original by the intaglio style that mimics the first federal stones.

If the data are robust enough, I hope to track the bodies, graves, and headstones – and illuminate how and why they have come to intersect in this peculiarly liminal space, poised between death and life, the national and the local, the abstract and the concrete.

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  • Agency
  • Identity
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