Next week, I’ll start teaching a Senior Seminar called Life and Death in Early America. In reality, it’s mostly about death. I’ve thrown in some stuff about disease, dirt, starvation, cannibalism, abortion, and contraception, just to keep things lively (so to speak), but the fact is that there is a fascinating new literature on death in my field. Its common themes are: how the afterlife was imagined in different places, times, and cultures; how death was experienced and interpreted; and how the living cared for the dying and the dead.
Another of the key features of this emerging subfield is a focus on commemoration: how different cultures commemorate the dead, and why we remember some deaths and some of our dead and forget others. Thanks to Manti T’eo, his imaginary girlfriend’s imaginary death, a real St. Mary’s College student’s death, and to Melinda Henneberger of the Washington Post, I’ve got a terrific contemporary hook for when we talk about the politics of commemoration. Henneberger explains:
So many tears for a fake dead girl, but none for a real one. The death of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s beautiful, brave girlfriend Lennay Kekau – widely reported by Sports Illustrated, CBS and many other media outlets — was all an elaborate hoax. So in response, my alma mater held the kind of emotional press conference for the fake dead girl that they never granted for the real one. As I’ve reported before, evidence that the University of Notre Dame covers up for sexual predators on the football team in hopes of winning some games has been mostly ignored. “Who can know?” my fellow alums asked, on their way to snap up some more “Play Like a Champion Today” tee-shirts ahead of the big game. But evidence that the school kept mum after learning that that the story of Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend, who as she lay dying urged him to fight on to victory anyway – gosh, just like the Gipper — was concocted from start to finish? Now that’s a national story, and a real gut-punch to fans, involving important matters like the pursuit of the Heisman Trophy. Continue Reading »