Memory is a topic of particular interest to me as an anthropologist who studies deathways, mortuary behavior, and cemetery landscapes. Cemeteries are often sites of memorialization. Unlike other archaeological contexts—trash middens, house foundations, mining campsites, food processing locations, etc.—cemeteries are intended to be records of the past. Cemeteries are intended to mitigate forgetting. So, how do so many cemeteries become forgotten? Family lines die out or children move away abandoning care of family plots. Grave markers disintegrate or become time worn and unreadable. Landscapes change and land values change with them prompting land owners to raze markers and monuments, re-purpose the parcels to meet the demands of growing communities and call it progress. These factors explain how some cemeteries become lost, but lost is not synonymous with forgetting. Becoming lost is a result of forgetting. For some large communities with densely populated, common-use cemeteries like the Alameda-Stone cemetery in Tucson, Arizona, Freedman’s Cemetery in Dallas, or the African Burial Ground in New York among others, forgetting is an active social process. How do so many people forget a place of great meaning? As an archaeologist often employed in discovering the lives of forgotten cemeteries, this question haunts me.

Avery F. Gordon’s Ghostly Matters (1997) addressed this manner of haunting. She suggested that if we—social scientists—“want to study social life well, we must learn how to identify haunting and reckon with ghosts, must learn how to make contact with what is without doubt the often painful, difficult, and unsettling” (1997:23). Gordon defines “memory” as shaped by the intermingling of fact, fiction, and desire. Memory is not simply a reconstruction of the facts of the past. In Gordon’s definition, memory exists in the place where facts meet meaning. For an anthropologist discovering the lives of forgotten cemeteries, it is my task not only to identify age, sex, status and other quantifiable measures of a life, but to grapple with the ghost; in this case, I must grapple with the ghost of memory. This is not a simple task. Despite Gordon’s evocative eloquence, the concept of ghosts, haunting and memory requires some intellectual gymnastics for an archaeologist accustomed to dealing with tangible, quantifiable, falsifiable data. How do social scientists marry the facts of the past to meaning in the present? How can I as an archaeologist understand memory through the lens of an abandoned place of memorial?

Kristin Sewell


Gordon, Avery

1997    Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis.

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2 Responses to Ghosts

  1. Ellen says:

    Ghostly Matters sounds interesting! The selective excavation of poorer and often nonwhite cemeteries is very much something I’m interested in as well – in some cases there’s definitely a resistance to unearthing some of these cemeteries and rememoralizing them, whether for economic or ideological reasons. The old ‘Negro burying ground’ in Richmond, Va is under much debate in the state legislature at the moment, as it’s under a parking lot at Virginia Commonwealth University and the state either owns the land or is planning to buy it. Hopefully it’ll become better memorialized and redone if all goes well.

  2. Brent Fortenberry says:

    I thought about these issues for a short piece on archaeolog called “Time, materiality and public sites’. I focused on cemeteries and time using the work of Laurent Olivier as a jumping off point, his arguments are really useful with respect to these kinds of places.

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