Autolysis: Post-mortem change
Dr. Kami Fletcher on Why Death Studies Should be Radical
We chat with one of the founders of the Center for Radical Death Studies on using cemeteries as a source of knowledge, how death changes the archive and how grief transforms into activism in the African American community.
TW: Racial violence, sexual violence
Dr. Kami Fletcher (@kamifletcher36) is a historian, an associate professor at Albright College and the co-founder and president of the Collective for Radical Death Studies (CRDS). She started her career by studying one of the oldest cemeteries in Baltimore, MD as a way to understand African American history and the experience of Africans in America.
AI: Can you tell me a little bit about the collective and how it came about ?
KF: For me and my research, culture and death are not severed. They are really one and the same. Culture influences and creates our mourning practices, how we understand death. This kind of death denial culture that we have in the US is spurned from that. I was invited to speak by the Order of Good Death during a death salon they had in 2018 and I began to see different types of groups that have been inspired by author Jessica Mitford. The way she talked about undertakers and the idea of the “American way of death,” a term she coined, was really foreign to my own work. Her canonical work just ran counter to what I’m saying. That’s why I started by saying that there was a kind of severance with culture.
In going to academic Twitter, I got involved with this hashtag #SoJust. A wonderful Professor (Rhonda Ragsdale) does this as a push back to the capitalistic, elitist, ivory tower notion. Everybody can’t afford to go to college, so she holds Saturday School, using #SoJust and I led a #SoJustDeath. From that came this call to decolonize death studies, to decentre whiteness, pushing back against this idea that all death is equal.
From that, two of us started the Collective for Radical Death studies. That’s our mission: to decolonize death studies, decentre whiteness, and put BIPOC voices as the centre of death and deathways. It’s so odd to me that there’s been this whitewashing and homogenisation of death that sanitizes it. There is no truthfulness about the culture. We’re talking about gender, class, all these types of things that influence our deathways and our death work.
AI: I’m curious about what decentring whiteness and decolonizing death studies in the United states involve? Can you give examples of notions that you want to begin to dismantle?
KF: It really focuses on white people’s experience here. An example is that when you look at cemeteries, New England cemeteries are the ones that are protected. Those are the memories and those are the cemeteries that tell us who we are as Americans. This is a very young country. If we took 1776 as the founding, we all know that to be complicated, right? Africans were brought here and enslaved as early as 1619. If we’re talking about how this country was formed even earlier, we’re talking about Florida. We’re talking about Native Americans. Whenever we’re talking about what became the United States, Americans are racialized as white. It’s their experiences. These are the cemeteries, in New England, that are protected. For Native American cemeteries, we’ve dug all that up and we’ve put them in a museum. We need to honour other sacred spaces.
The American Gravestone Studies Association is a wonderful organization that centres on cemeteries, right? If you look back to all of their magazines from when they started in the mid 70s, it’s centred on New England burial grounds. It marginalizes voices of colour. And I don’t think it’s necessarily done on purpose. But this is what I’m talking about when you’re looking at death studies. Who’s writing them and what are their experiences?
What then develops is this narrative about how people are dying that’s just completely minimal. You’re not saying: “Oh, this is how white Americans are.” You may be using the word “Puritan,” but you’re generalizing for all deaths, deathways and the work that’s being done around death. Like I’ve said, juxtapose that with Native American burial grounds and you can see very clearly what’s going on.
AI: Can you tell me about the burial grounds practices , funeral direction and cemeteries in African American death norms and death work?
KF: With cemeteries, I didn’t realize how much value they had as autonomous Black spaces. Mount Auburn Cemetery in Baltimore, founded in 1807, was owned and operated by free Black folks that started a church in 1787. It was important on many levels when I found out in my own research that record keeping was controlled. When you’re looking at who’s being buried, there’s names of Black folks in this early 1800 period, where in other records, they’re somebody’s slave. Just this negative, derogatory name because that’s what’s going on during that time period. Around the late 1870s, a lot of these undertakers started popping out in the records.
Subsequently, I’ve been researching undertakers in Baltimore. That’s where death denial, that “American way of death,” was just counter to my own research. In the US, once hospitals are established in the early 20th century, folks are no longer dying at home. They’re being sent to hospitals to die. So death leaves the home. That’s not happening with Black folks. We’re not allowed in hospitals because of Jim Crow segregation. If there’s not a Black hospital, we’re not going. Black undertakers were not money-grubbing folks. This was a way for them to transition from the agrarian economy to the cash economy. They saw themselves as part of the community, stayed there and gave back.
The way you start to decolonize death is by looking at the ways in which Black folks are dying. Especially if we’re talking about certain periods, that is not in the narrative of death studies. White supremacy and racism is a big reason why Black folks are dying. Black folks are being lynched. There is government-sanctioned violence and experimentation, And that’s the real activism and social justice element that we tackle head on with CRDS.
AI: Have you seen cases where culture was influenced by how death is thought about? Does it influence cultural elements or cultural artefacts?
KF: It definitely ebbs and flows. I don’t think it’s rigid. During the institutionalization of slavery, Black folks did not have access to material culture: marble headstones, engraved headstones, any type of fancy coffin or even having a funeral. That type of material culture. But once they had access to it, they absolutely wanted it. They wanted the fanciest death material culture they could find. But your question also begs us to interrogate why.
What I’m constantly finding in my research, this is about dignity for Black folks. They died in these very unnatural ways. If all of my dignity has been taken from me—being lynched, dragged out of my house raped, beaten, mutilated— this $1,000 casket, this long funeral procession, or if we’re in the 30s or the 40s, having this pretty expensive burial lot is very important to me.
It’s not just about how people have adopted different material cultures but also about how it’s being used, like RIP t-shirts. What are they? Where did they come from? So I think it is important to understand that it’s not rigid. There’s absolutely elasticity in it. But at the same time, I think we should pay homage to where these things come from, like any cultural creation.
AI: I find that asking students to mine public archives as part of your course to be quite interesting. What is the relation between death and the archive? Do they transform one another?
KF: What a great question. I have taught African American deathways and death work in my previous position, so I had the pleasure of teaching that class twice. One thing that was important to me is to get students to see the cemetery as a source of knowledge. It just so happens that there was a historic Black cemetery very close to campus. I taught for five years at Delaware State University before coming to Albright. It was the cemetery of Star Hill AME Church, a historic church. Lynn Rainville, in her book Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia, has a wonderful way of mining the material on headstones. They had this sheet front and back and to gather as much information as they could from the cemetery.
Some students were confronting death themselves. I remember talking to one student at the gate of the cemetery and I wasn’t going to make her go in. I’ve just lost somebody, I don’t want to do this. But what I told her is that these people have the right to be remembered and that’s what we were doing. We were doing memory work. This is about uncovering Black history and I was teaching at a historically Black university, so they understood what it meant to have their history undermined, marginalized and discarded. After talking with my student, she understood that this was her uncovering history for someone.
The next part of that project was to go to the state archives and put all these pieces together. What can this headstone tell us? You may have had a name, or maybe you didn’t. They had to understand the iconography. Maybe there was military or religious iconography. At the end of the project, the students had to write a paragraph as if they were writing a bio of this person. They found out that some of these folks had done some really important things. They were involved in politics and served in the war. One of them died in Philly and wanted to be buried here. I position the cemetery as an archive. It’s a source of knowledge.
I’m hoping to create something similar where I am now, a public history class or maybe a track or a minor. I’m involved in creating the Pennsylvania chapter of American Gravestone Studies and one of the things I want to do is use the cemeteries in the city of Reading, where Albright college is, and use that as public history. What does that mean? This is a city of the dead. The living and the dead continue to create this history as the neighbourhood changes. And as the living folks change around the cemetery, how they view the cemetery changes. It’s very much a living and not a stoic source of knowledge. I’m hoping that students see it not only individually but also collectively. One on one, I’m here to grieve. I’m here to mourn. But when you take it collectively as the city of the dead, what can it tell us about the people who once lived in this community? How has the community shifted and changed gender, race, and class?
AI: You talked a bit about dignified death earlier. What about the grieving family? Do they ever find comfort? I’m wondering about the traces that the dead leave behind.
KF: Grief, to me, is still very new in my own research. I started out with the cemeteries, looked at deathwork, looked at these undertakers with a very clear lens on gender and class. But when my nephew died of street violence in 2018 I just knew that writing about that in a personal but scholarly way was something that was part of my grief. And I never wanted to study grief. I never wanted to do grief. People ask me: how do you study the dead? I’m studying death like all historians do. Everybody’s dead, right?
But that grief was a lot. The RIP t-shirts were part of that mourning. It was something that my big sister, my nephew’s mother, wanted to do. So I wrote about that and it should be published this coming year. In that, I ended up studying grief. It really was a lot, looking at mothers grieving. This was her only son. So I delved into the research like any scholar would.
Whether it’s rare cemeteries, death work or whether I’m looking at grief and mourning, what stands in common is activism. It is a thread in the African American community. Grief is turned into activism. I don’t even know if comfort is the word I would use, because resilience really is the right word. I’m from Arkansas, so this is me talking about a very southern way of death. It’s important when you’re looking at Black folks to not be homogenous because if you’re looking at Black folks in Connecticut or if you’re looking at someone that practices Islam or someone that is non-secular, things will change. But when I’m talking about Black people, there’s definitely a commonality in how we live with this racism that shapes life.
Look at homegoing, which is different from a funeral because of the length of time. George Floyd had a homegoing. You saw the gold casket. It’s the celebration of life. What Jessica Mitford may call ostentatious, Black folks are saying no, it’s disrespectful not to give them the best in death. People coming, people surrounding you with food, coming into the house calling and checking in on you. You know that is supposed to be comfort. The research says so much about resilience and activism. You see it with Tamir Rice and folks that have lost their people to racism, this police brutality, they’ve just gotten more active in their community because we don’t want to lose another person to this.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.