Corpsecologies: Land Rights & the Colonization of Corpses

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To the frustration of my parents, who would love nothing more than to brag about my PhD research, I think and talk a lot about dead bodies. Fictional dead bodies, it turns out, make the living as uncomfortable as real ones. Dead bodies are troublesome, even in fiction: What is a corpse in a work of fiction? What does it do and what do you do with it? Is it a person or an object? How does it fit into the social world and space of a novel? These questions have implications beyond narrative theory’s insular (yet surprisingly combative) world. How we think and talk about the materiality of corpses determines where a body belongs and what it can do: on sacred ground in a cemetery or on display in a museum? In the past or part of the future? Is it biodegradable or degradable?

Far from a difference-leveling universal, death is grounded in politics and history. The dead themselves do not form a homogenous group; moreover, how a particular corpse’s materiality is conceptualized speaks to their living community’s sustainability. Unequal corpse ecologies1—where class, race, and gender determine the relationship between a dead body and its environment—have played and continue to play a critical role in nation-building and the consolidation of white settler colonial land rights in North America.

Early American literature was instrumental in establishing hierarchies of death that legitimized the occupation of Indigenous lands, the annihilation of Indigenous communities, and the exhibition of Indigenous bodies. Before Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act was signed into law, writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Catherine Maria Sedgwick were facilitating Indigenous2 relocation in the minds of American readers and expiating settler guilt by depicting spectral Indigenous characters ceding Indigenous lands and knowledge to white characters. Through this process of spectralization, Indigeneity and Indigenous death are removed to a distant, vanished past. The tragic history haunting the lands strengthens the mythos of the new American nation who can then also showcase the restorative power of white grief.

Attending to the material depictions of Indigenous corpses in these texts reveals even more clearly that Indigenous death is a moral and environmental resource. When Indigenous death is not spectralized in frontier novels, it’s animalized or placed in the background, fusing with the wilderness. Indigenous bodies are often left outside after battle scenes, in heaps and masses, unburied, ungrieved. The colonized corpse is nature, exploitable and extractable, emotional fuel for the development of American literature. And while Indigenous communities are left broken by a lack of access to their dead, a new kind of environmental consciousness in 19th-century American culture blooms from the romance of their death.

Lithograph, 1886. Source: Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Public domain.

The rural cemetery movement of the 1830s, part of what Aaron Sachs characterizes as a “broad antebellum spirit of liberal reform,” is an early example of the harmful rhetoric that continues to worm its way into eco-speak today, impacting the way we scale environmental problems.3 Rural cemeteries green-washed the country’s ongoing violence against Indigenous communities by being “explicitly modeled—in part—on the burial practices of Indians” and marketing themselves as spaces for all, despite caring almost exclusively for the loved ones of the white middle and upper classes of New England at the time.4 With a new material investment in corpses after a strange period of theological ambiguity, “Americans were making a commitment to see the continuity between bodies and environments, and to approach both with a heightened sense of appreciation and caring—to raise them to a higher level.”5

Within these highly landscaped garden cemeteries, one could contemplate the limits and possibilities of the natural world, ushering in “a new ecology of death.”6 Ralph Waldo Emerson is one such noted contemplator of the natural world. His cemetery visits with his dead radically changed his philosophies—philosophies that then changed the course of American intellectualism. In many ways, the ability to tend to one’s dead—to have physical space to be with the dead—leads to social flourishing, cementing a link between cemetery rights and futurity.

Mount Auburn Cemetery, the first rural cemetery in the US, and where Emerson did some top-notch contemplating.
Image: Thomas Chambers, Mount Auburn Cemetery (mid 19th century). Oil on canvas, 35.6 x 46cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Public domain.

As conservation cemeteries multiply and increase in popularity today in response to the climate crisis, the burial grounds of Indigenous nations remain unprotected.7 Conflicts are flaring up all over Canada and the U.S. as Indigenous cemeteries are either bulldozed by corporate interests or looted by archeologists.8 Ironically, green burials are still advertised as a return to the natural “lost” ways of ancient cultures like those of Indigenous nations. Characterizing Indigenous burial practices as lost erases the struggles of today’s Indigenous communities to protect their lands and burial grounds. The green burial movement’s rhetoric9 and the expansion of conservation cemeteries sit in tension with the desecration of Indigenous burial grounds by pipeline projects and the haunting discoveries of mass unmarked graves at former residential schools, which reveal that not all corpses are equal and enjoy a peaceful, “green” relationship with the land.

Customers of Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery in Florida, for example,10 purchase their final resting place “with the certainty that protected land is the ultimate legacy to leave for future generations;”11 whatever harm to the planet they may have contributed while alive, in death, their bodies are re-imagined as earth-healing and life-giving. Meanwhile, the communities of the Sioux in North and South Dakota or the Wet’suwet’en of British Columbia are marked as unsustainable and excluded from ecological consideration via the denial of their cemetery rights. If settler corpses buried in green cemeteries ensure the survival of future generations, the careless treatment of Indigenous remains sends the clear, antithetical message that their kin have no future or legacy; settler institutions are not invested in the ecological afterlife of all corpses.

Nate Fisher’s green burial on Six Feet Under (2001) was likely the first encounter with the practice for many. And it looked exhausting
Nate Fisher’s green burial in this screenshot from Six Feet Under (2001) was likely the first encounter with the practice for many. And it looked exhausting.

Should we be concerned about what happens to our body after we die and if it will be disposed of in an environment-friendly way? Sure, I think about it all the time, and love to bring it up at parties. But a good green death is not available to everyone: cremation remains the most affordable option for most,12 and green burials reinforce a logic of land ownership that makes cemetery spaces exclusionary and limited.13 The green burial discourse about returning bodies to nature employs universalist language that obscures the ways class, race, and gender inequitably structure relations to the environment. Eco-critical ideas are not as radical nor as egalitarian as we need them to be. The persistent and violent necropolitics according to which Indigenous remains are treated as relics of the past or nonhuman altogether are reminders of who gets left in the dust as we plot our way forward to a more sustainable future. 


[1] For more on the relationship between the environment and human death see Shiloh R. Krupar’s article “Green Death” in Cultural Geographies 24.2 (April 2018), 267-284.

[2] I’m using the term Indigenous in this post because of its international recognition but with the understanding that all-encompassing terminology is an imperfect choice in this context.

[3] Aaron Sachs, Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition (New Haven: Yale UP, 2012), 23.

[4] Ibid, 46.

[5] Ibid, 22.

[6] Ibid, 22.

[7] For more on this rhetoric see Suzanne Kelly’s Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

[8] Canada and the United States have both passed legislation intended to protect Indigenous rights in the event of such discoveries but provincial laws like B.C.’s “Indian Graves Ordinance” (1867) and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 in the U.S. are widely considered to have failed in that mission.

[9] The fact that these sites are referred to as “burial grounds” and not cemeteries is a semantic distinction with legal and cultural implications.

[10] Quoted from Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery’s FAQ page which can be accessed here:

[11] Another example is Denman Island Burial Cemetery, whose tagline is “Caring for the Community and the Environment.” Just up the coast from Grace Islet in British Columbia, where the Penalakut Tribe tried to stop the landowner’s plans to build a mansion over hallowed grounds, Denman Island Burial Cemetery is Canada’s first all-green cemetery and prides itself on combining “eco-friendly internment with land conservation.” Residents of the island hold exclusive rights to be buried on this land—land that was stolen from the Pentlatch people, whose gravesites can still be found on the island.

[12] Future green alternatives might include corpse composting and hydraulic dissolution or water cremation. Interestingly, modern death care practices denounced by green burial advocates today, like embalming, grew out of the ecological makeover of corpses in the nineteenth century. Today, the goal is to dispel the myth of the infectious corpse to curb the use of chemicals, but embalming was practiced at the time in part under the belief that corpses posed an environmental danger to the living.

[13] Cremation also causes significant levels of air pollution, forcing disadvantaged communities into becoming the very sources of pollution from which they ultimately suffer the most.

Feature Image: Faint outline of a body emerging from vibrant compost of flowers, trash, and money. Image created by the author and using Shutterstock’s ethical AI Image Generator with indemnification for copyright and trademarks.
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Jessica Elkaim

Jess Elkaim is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation focuses on representations of corpses in nineteenth-century American literature.

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