Dead As Dirt: An Environmental History of the Dead Body

Project: Research project

Project Details


Project Summary

Dead As Dirt: An Environmental History of the Dead Body

Dead As Dirt is a book project examining the environmental history of dead

bodies in the twentieth-century United States, drawing on the records and professional

literature of the death industries, the histories of the biology and chemistry of corpses

and their treatments, the legal history of corpse handling, and archival collections of

both private and public cemeteries, crematoria, mausoleums and burial societies. As the

book follows the changing material journeys of American corpses over the twentieth

century, it explores connections between human bodies and histories of technology,

property, politics, and thought. Changes in funerary practices and technologies of body

disposal have shaped American environments, landscapes, and lives, as have changes in material bodies themselves. The modern American corpse is toxic: mercury in teeth,

metal in joints, silicone in breasts, and batteries in chests have all made body disposal

newly complex.

Intellectual Merits

By focusing on the 'nature' of human remains, Dead As Dirt draws its intellectual merit from reconfiguring the place of people within environmental history, not merely as actors, but as constituent parts of dynamic ecological systems. Many people outside the academy - even those members of the general public most engaged with environmental politics and reform - think of human beings as fundamentally outside of 'nature.' In considering the environmental history of the human corpse,

Broader Impacts

Dead As Dirt not only expands the field of environmental history, building stronger connections between that field and the histories of science and technology, but will have a broader impact by offering undergraduates and general audience readers a useful and novel framework for considering people (both living and dead) as literally components of their environments. The place and role of living people in the 'environment' and 'nature' often seems unclear. A corpse, by contrast, can be easily understood as a thing, as a biological entity, which both shapes and is shaped by the landscapes, ecosystems and resource networks of which it is a part. The material lives of dead bodies make clear that people are deeply and inescapably embedded in natural systems.

Effective start/end date9/1/054/30/07


  • National Science Foundation: $47,500.00


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