The Vital Dead

Making Meaning, Identity, and Community through Cemeteries

  • Author(s): Bell, Alison
  • Series:
  • Imprint: University of Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2023-01-17
  • Status: Active
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What can a cemetery tell us about the social and cultural dynamics of a place and time? Anthropologist Alison Bell suggests that cemeteries participate in the grassroots cultural work of crafting social connections, even as they test the transcendental durability of the deceased person and provide a measure of a culture’s values. In The Vital Dead, Bell applies this framework to the communities of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and the cemeteries that have both claimed them and, paradoxically, sustained them.

Bell surveys objects left on graves, images and epitaphs on grave markers, and other artifacts of material culture to suggest a landscape of symbols maintaining relationships across the threshold of death. She explores cemetery practice and its transformation over time and largely presents her interpretations as a struggle against alienation. Rich in evocative examples both contemporary and historical, Bell’s analysis stems from fieldwork interviews, archival sources, and recent anthropological theory. The book’s chapters range across cemetery types, focusing on African American burials, the grave sites of institutionalized individuals, and modern community memorials. Ultimately, The Vital Dead is an account of how lives, both famous and forgotten, become transformed and energized through the communities and things they leave behind to produce profound and unexpected narratives of mortality. Bell’s deft storytelling coupled with skill for scholarly analysis make for a fascinating and emotionally moving read.

Groundbreaking in its approach, The Vital Dead makes important contributions to cemetery and material culture studies, as well as the fields of anthropology, archaeology, history, geography, and folklore.


ALISON BELL is professor of anthropology at Washington and Lee University. Her articles have appeared in Historical Archaeology, American Anthropologist, and International Journal of Historical Archaeology.