Corpses, Burials and Infection

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in or organising a conference


It has become a truism to state that in times of epidemic infection, the bodies of the dead become morally, ontologically, and infrastructurally problematic. Nowhere has this been better demonstrated than in the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, when burials and the handling of corpses became arenas of contestation through which both local and scientific ‘cultures’ were placed on trial.

Historically, burials and the treatment of human corpses in the time of epidemics have become sites of obvious and apparent contestation. Examples include issues of profanity during the “Plague of Athens” (430BC); allegations of the catapulting of infected corpses in the Middle Ages; Defoe’s descriptions of the breakdown of burial norms during the London Plague of 1665; colonial concerns over “body dumping” in the streets of fin de siècle Hong Kong, and the Pasteurian problematisation of Malagasy reburial rites as a mode of spreading plague in modern Madagascar. Furthermore, burial grounds and plague pits serve not only as condensed spaces of cultural heritage, but are increasingly approached as biological archives (aDNA).

This conference will expand the discursive space that such narratives have created, by asking; how can we problematize the perception and treatment of corpses in situations of infectious disease outbreaks? How can we denaturalize burial as an obvious space of political and ethical contestation? What kinds of pollution narrative are specific to epidemic situations, and how have these historically interacted with arguments over contagion and infection? Moreover, how does the handling of the polluted corpse come to impact upon descriptions of the healthy body? Indeed, what is the place of the healthy body in a political economy geared toward answering the question of how to dispose of the corpse?
Period4 Dec 20155 Dec 2015
Event typeConference
LocationCambridge, United KingdomShow on map