More than 150 years ago, Americans struggled with these emotional and logistical questions as individuals and as a society. Between 1861 and 1865 an estimated 750,000 Americans died in the Civil War. This represented nearly 2½ percent of the nation’s population — the equivalent today of more than 7 million people. This “harvest of death,” as many 19th-century Americans described it, affected not just the bereaved themselves, but broader collective understandings of citizenship, national community and the value of human life. How they treated and remembered the dead, Americans came to recognize, defined the extent and limits of their own humanity.
We will not be confronted with 7 million dead, nor is the coronavirus pandemic likely to persist for four years, even if it returns with new spikes after the current crisis has passed. But numbers expected to reach beyond 100,000 dead have been devastating — in reality and in prospect. Each of these losses is a tragedy, and collectively they represent an assault upon much of what we had come to take for granted about our modern world. The pandemic’s rapid spread robs us of our illusions of safety in a time when antibiotics had seemed to conquer infectious disease and when the power of science and technology had seemed to minimize our vulnerabilities. Death was a subject many of us in the United States had the luxury not to dwell upon, but to deny and push to the margins of consciousness, to postpone considering until life’s very last days. Efficient and systematic, both medicine and the funeral profession whisked death’s evidences out of sight, aiding us in our commitment to keep them out of mind.
But last week, New York City, the pandemic’s epicenter, erected field hospitals in Central Park. The overwhelmed hospital system had compelled a reversion to arrangements that we think of in relation to Gettysburg or Antietam, not 21st-century Manhattan. Covid-19’s highly contagious nature means patients must die alone, with no loved ones to offer solace through death’s passage. Morgues are full, and bodies too numerous to handle are being stored in refrigerated trailers. Trenches will be dug for temporary burial of 10 coffins in a line on Hart Island in the Bronx. Funeral homes are running out of chemicals for embalming, crematoria cannot process the volume of bodies. Viewings have been abandoned and shelter-in-place requirements make funerals impossible.
This is not how 21st-century Americans expect to die, and it is not how we expect to confront the loss of relatives and neighbors. The pandemic has made death’s customary rituals impossible, overturning the forms and observances that counter the rupture of bereavement with the affirmation of community and continuity. It seems a nightmare from another place and time.
Earlier Americans struggled with their own version of this nightmare. In Civil War battles, the sheer number of dead on the field — 7,000 at Gettysburg, nearly 4,000 at Chickamauga, 4,200 at Spotsylvania — often posed an almost unsurmountable challenge to exhausted soldiers fresh from the fight. There were no designated burial units, no dog tags to ensure bodies could be identified, often not even picks or shovels to dig graves. The dead were frequently cast into hastily excavated trenches in a manner that seemed more appropriate for animals than for humans. The fundamental element of the 19th-century notion of a Good Death, the iconic Victorian bedside farewell, where family gathered to witness and comfort the dying, was of course impossible for soldiers hundreds of miles from home and kin. Half of the Civil War dead remained unidentified, so families often possessed neither a body nor even certainty of loss, denying them the solace of a funeral.
Yet in the face of these searing realities, Civil War Americans resisted what they saw as a threat to their very humanity. How we treat the dead, they understood, is essential in defining who we are. And how we mourn determines our ability to move through the stages of grief and loss to emerge into a world that is different, yet one in which we can feel and be fully human again. Civil War death required Americans to improvise new ways to affirm their own humanity through their treatment of the departed.
Soldiers searched for close comrades in the aftermath of battle, determined to provide a decent grave and a semblance of burial rites and to inter bodies with some form of identification — perhaps a name inserted into a bottle — so that they might eventually be reclaimed. In the absence of any kind of official identification badges, soldiers hoping not to die unknown frequently invented their own substitutes — ranging from pieces of paper with their names and addresses pinned to uniforms at the outset of battle to metal discs that enterprising merchants made available for purchase by the later years of the war.
Civil War armies did not have formal procedures for notifying next of kin, so soldiers took this on themselves, penning condolence letters with descriptions of last moments and last words, and sometimes including information about where a body had been buried. “On the left side of the Railroad going towards Atlanta about a mile off a small creek … by a big tree,” one description specified.
By the end of the war, the military had begun to introduce grave registration policies, which then became standard in future American conflicts. After Appomattox, the federal government undertook a massive reburial effort, searching for Union graves across the South. More than 300,000 Union soldiers were disinterred from fields, forests and byways and given the dignity of burial in 74 new national cemeteries. This effort represented the beginning of the federal government’s commitment to remember and honor its war dead, a responsibility we take for granted today.
We too will need to find ways to reassert our humanity in face of the terrible necessities introduced by our plague. We could not have imagined turning to field hospitals, crowded refrigerated trailers and trench burials, or contemplated loved ones dying with no proper farewell. We have taken actions that a few months ago we would have regarded as primitive, even barbaric, unthinkable in the kind of society we thought we had become.
And our treatment of the most vulnerable — people who are disabled, homeless, incarcerated — will test our democratic ideals. The coronavirus’s impact on African Americans, who are dying on a shocking, disproportionate scale, has revealed how the deep structures of racism in American life persist into American death. We will ask ourselves how we could have been so unprepared — not just for the virus but for our obligations to one another. We will struggle to compensate when we get to the other side of the pandemic — no doubt with a crush of funerals and memorials to honor those the crisis compelled us to neglect. We will need those observances to overcome our unresolved grief. We will need to use the now-delayed process of mourning and its rituals to confront fundamental questions about life’s precariousness that we as a society have endeavored in so many ways to deny.
Nineteenth-century Americans believed that a consciousness of death enabled a more purposeful and intentional life. Constant awareness of the finitude of human existence made it more precious and gave each moment of life deeper meaning. We have now ourselves been forced to confront death, its sway and its inevitability. Our challenge is not so different from the one our forebears faced a century and a half ago: how to reaffirm our humanity and community as we come to terms with the mortality that defines, unites and ultimately engulfs us all.