Wednesday, January 9, 2008

This Republic of Suffering

Okay. First, you absolutely must listen to today's episode of "Fresh Air" on NPR. Terry Gross interviewed Drew Gilpin Faust, whose book, "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War," was just released. I'm totally broke, but I bought it. Listen to the interview. It is fascinating. The Civil War left over 600,000 dead soldiers in its wake. It had a profound effect on this country, and changed the way death is perceived. Death on the battlefield, burial on the battlefield, the changing burial practices due to haste and anonymity, the families of dead soldiers and how they dealt with the death, not to mention, as stated above, the sheer number of the dead and its impact on our country.

Just as I am fascinated by cemeteries and have a deep respect for places of burial, I am equally as fascinated by the Civil War and its repercussions in the form of death. It was a devastating war that wiped out entire regiments, not to mention the entire male line of families, both north and south. Last year I reacquainted myself with the Ken Burns documentary, and was equally as moved then as I was in high school by the images of the dead strewn about like tiny weathered dolls in a field, as if roughly played then subsequently forgotten. As Faust discusses in the interview, people would come to visit a battlefield ten days after a battle ended and the bodies would still be there, waiting, decaying, silently begging for a proper funeral.

On my list of things to do before I die (where once a visit to New Orleans was listed, and now I admittedly took it off my list because the thought of going there frightens me--it is another form of death and rebirth altogether) is a tour of America that consists of visiting places like Monticello, Mount Vernon, and famous Civil War battlefields, because they are, essentially, as sacred as Arlington Cemetery. A lot of people died on those fields, and many of them died horrible, excruciating deaths. They are places of honor and respect.

Which leads me to my second point: some of these battlefields, such as Chancellorsville in Virginia, are endangered. They are in danger of being overrun by development: some condos here, a Starbucks there. It is possible that one day, maybe in ten years, if you go to Chancellorsville you might be ordering a Latte where a soldier once died. Perhaps he was a soldier whose name was lost, and thus was buried in an anonymous grave. If that happens, it will be very sad. But that's all it'll be: I doubt the spirits of the dead will rise up and terrorize the baristas like the ghosts from Poltergeist. No, it'll just be sad.


Kurt Chiang said...

Concerning performance material/images/things: I have a couple books on plague, the Black Death, and one specifically on smallpox during the Civil War (or is it Revolutionary? I'll have to check). Anyway, I was interesting in reading these and finding ways that large scale death is translated onstage. I made a comment on one of John's earlier posts ("Tame Death") about exploring with ways to make vastness an isolating and confining experience.

Tiny ideas.

evandebacle said...

One of the other fascinating ways that the Civil War transformed our conceptions of death was through medicine. Battle field surgery was transformed during the Civil War as anesthetic came into wide use for the first time. Doctors carried kits with ether. The line between inevitable death and a chance for life began to shift drastically.

Anonymous said...

My father took my sister and I on a week long road trip to all of the important battle fields. The history was awesome. the car ride, not so much.

Anonymous said...

Also, I have to recall what I was reading but the man who caused embalming to be the rage in the states was a man who wasn't even a doctor in the civil war who came up with the idea of using the techniques he learned in other countries to embalm the dead soldiers so that they could get them back to their homes. This is one of the ways in which the death parlor in homes became less and less a common place in the family house. And this in turn brought the dying into the sterile hospitals which is what my post about the tame death was partially about that Kurt refers to in the comment above.

evandebacle said...

This is a description of an exhibit at the National Museum of Funeral History"

"This diorama illustrates how Dr. Holmes embalmed on the battlefield. A field embalmer would use whatever was available or what could be found to serve a purpose. A tarp was erected to protect the doctor from the sun and elements and to create some privacy for the work. Notice the black bunting draped over the front of the tarp, representing mourning of the dead.

"Here, Dr. Holmes is making use of a discarded door supported by two whisky barrels as an embalming table. The wooden box on the ground contains bottles of embalming fluid.

"Dr. Holmes (standing) is embalming the body of a soldier brought from the battlefield. His right hand clutches a rubber squeeze ball, which pumps the fluid into the deceased, a process that could take several hours.

"After embalming was complete, the remains were placed in a wooden coffin located to the right of the table, later to be buried locally or shipped to the soldier's family.

"Dr. Holmes charged $7.00 per embalming for an enlisted man and $13.00 for an officer."

Dinabear said...

Where did that beautiful photo come from?

Also the Civil War embalming process and Dr. Holmes is fascinating, Evan, thank you! I am waiting to receive Dr. Faust's book in the mail, and I certainly hope she explores Dr. Holmes' process in her book. I'd like to learn more about it.

ALSO also, yesterday's episode of Fresh Air was about death again: Susan Sontag's son wrote a book recently about his mother's horrible, painful death from a rare form of cancer. He discussed with Terry Gross Sontag's attempt to beat death, her fear of death (which he said she characterized as "extinction"--Sontag was an atheist) even when she often traveled to places of violence, putting herself in harm's way. The book is called SWIMMING IN A SEA OF DEATH; it was interesting.