Atlantic History Death in the Atlantic World
Erik R. Seeman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0204


Death studies emerged as a distinct field of scholarly inquiry in the 1970s. From the beginning the field was animated at least in part by presentist concerns. Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death (1963) had, by the 1970s, led to a thorough critique of the funeral industry and the “high cost of dying.” At the same time, the public was also concerned about the increasing “medicalization” of death. Employing the social history methods then current, pioneering historians such as Philippe Ariès, Pierre Chaunu, and David Stannard contrasted the mortuary practices of the past—which they claimed to be simple and community oriented—with the allegedly bloated, overpriced, individualistic rituals of the late twentieth century (see citations under Continental Europe and Euro-Americans). They also argued that past societies had been in touch with the reality of death, as compared unfavorably to the supposed “denial of death” in the modern West. More recent works have moved away from this original orientation, choosing instead to take the past more on its own terms. The emergence of Atlantic history in the 1990s was likewise shaped partly by a presentist agenda. Frequent discussions of globalization in the news media created a climate in which transnational approaches gained favor in numerous scholarly disciplines. Moreover, an Atlantic perspective seemed to promise a more multicultural approach to the history of colonial North America. The history of the Atlantic world, as it has developed since the 1990s, focuses on the exchange of peoples, ideas, and commodities among the four continents bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Cross-cultural encounters are therefore a central concern. Although some authors have called for histories of the Atlantic world that extend through the twentieth century, most Atlantic histories continue to be written for the period from 1492 through the Atlantic revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This article, therefore, focuses on that time period for its discussion of “deathways”: mortuary practices, including deathbed scenes, funerals, burials, mourning, and memorialization. “Death in the Atlantic World” resides at the intersection of death studies and Atlantic history. Whereas death studies has long been interdisciplinary, with important contributions in anthropology, history, literary studies, and sciences such as epidemiology, this bibliography concentrates on historical studies. Only a handful of histories discuss deathways in an explicitly Atlantic framework. This article goes beyond that small group to include works that can be brought together to construct an Atlantic history of death.

General Overviews

Few overviews of the history of death in the Atlantic world are available; most works focus on deathways in one corner of the region. Roach 1996, influenced by Paul Gilroy’s concept of the “Black Atlantic,” is an early attempt to draw broad conclusions about death in the Atlantic world, based on the examples of New Orleans and London. While the book’s performance-based approach leads to many valuable insights, its jargon-filled language has limited its impact to literary studies. Seeman 2010 uses deathways to gain insight into the encounters among Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans in the New World. The first chapter provides an overview of these groups’ mortuary practices on the eve of colonization, with the rest of the book telling the story of cross-cultural encounters after 1492. Most of the remaining works cited in this section are collections of essays. As in many wide-ranging fields, edited collections offer broad coverage by combining the expertise of numerous scholars. Isenberg and Burstein 2003 is the most helpful collection about early America, especially as it includes literary scholars in addition to historians. Several of the other collections focus on anthropology and archaeology, two disciplines of central importance to understanding death in the Atlantic world. Most historians who study death in the early modern Atlantic use (implicitly or explicitly) ethnographic methods. Likewise, many rely on archaeological findings to complement written sources that frequently ignore the practices of the nonliterate. Metcalf and Huntington 1991, Arnold and Wicker 2001, and Robben 2004 are all valuable collections on the archaeology and anthropology of death; all three go beyond the confines of the early modern Atlantic. Obayashi 1992 takes a world religions perspective to offer an overview of attitudes toward death and the afterlife. Pearson 1999 is not an edited volume but rather an introductory guide to the meaning that can be extracted from burials. All of these books share the conviction that death offers unparalleled insight into past societies. Because death was central to the religious beliefs of the Atlantic world, using death as a category of analysis allows historians to understand residents of the early modern Atlantic on their own terms.

  • Arnold, Bettina, and Nancy L. Wicker, eds. Gender and the Archaeology of Death. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2001.

    Ten chapters on mortuary practices in Europe, Asia, and North America. Valuable inclusion of gender analysis, often missing in archaeological accounts of deathways. Several essays caution against using grave goods to determine the sex of skeletons.

  • Isenberg, Nancy, and Andrew Burstein, eds. Mortal Remains: Death in Early America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

    A helpful introductory essay plus twelve outstanding chapters by historians and literary scholars. Contributors share an interest in how deathways impacted broader aspects of early American society: national politics, gender dynamics, and race relations.

  • Metcalf, Peter, and Richard Huntington. Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511803178

    Because historians of death frequently rely on anthropological perspectives, this overview of a century of the field’s key works is very valuable. Offers a “new theoretical synthesis” of previous research.

  • Obayashi, Hiroshi, ed. Death and the Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions. New York: Greenwood, 1992.

    Valuable collection summarizes beliefs about death and the afterlife in numerous world religions. Five chapters relevant to the Atlantic world. Authors often focus more on prescription—what people were supposed to believe and do—than actual practice.

  • Pearson, Mike Parker. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999.

    Something of a textbook, suitable for undergraduates or anyone seeking an introduction to the topic, on what one can learn from the remains of the dead. Chapter on “The Politics of the Dead” especially valuable for discussing archaeological ethics.

  • Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

    Focuses on London and New Orleans with implications for the wider Atlantic world. Performance-based analysis examines “surrogation”: a community’s attempts to substitute for the loss of the deceased. Eloquent on the relation between memory and forgetting.

  • Robben, Antonius C. G. M. Death, Mourning, and Burial: A Cross-Cultural Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

    Thoughtful selection of excerpts from twenty-three classic books and articles about death, plus a helpful introduction. Most works are anthropological; a few are historical. Excerpts include broad theoretical contributions as well as tightly focused case studies.

  • Seeman, Erik R. Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492–1800. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.9783/9780812206005

    Examines the encounters of Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans through the lens of deathways. Argues that deep structural similarities in mortuary practices allowed for cross-cultural recognition of shared humanity, even as some individuals used knowledge of deathways for exploitative purposes.

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