Reclaiming the Past and Working for Justi…

Reclaiming the Past and Working for Justi…



Across the United States, groups of grassroots volunteers gather in overgrown, systemically neglected cemeteries. As they rake, clean headstones, and research silenced histories, they offer care to individuals who were denied basic rights and forms of belonging in life and in death. Cemetery Citizens is the first book-length study of this emerging form of social justice work. It focuses on how racial disparities shape the fates of the dead, and asks what kinds of repair are still possible. Drawing on interviews, activist anthropology, poems, and drawings, Adam Rosenblatt takes us to gravesite reclamation efforts in three prominent American cities.

Cemetery Citizens dives into the ethical quandaries and practical complexities of cemetery reclamation, showing how volunteers build community across social boundaries, craft new ideas about citizenship and ancestry, and expose injustices that would otherwise be suppressed. Ultimately, Rosenblatt argues that an ethic of reclamation must honor the presence of the dead—treating them as fellow cemetery citizens who share our histories, landscapes, and need for care.

About the author

Adam Rosenblatt is Associate Professor of the Practice in International Comparative Studies and Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of Digging for the Disappeared: Forensic Science after Atrocity (2015).

Cemetery Citizens is timely and beautifully written.Rosenblatt challenges the death phobic living to face fears and embrace a civic duty to the dead. Not only does he force the living to reckon with the systemic oppression that left African American cemeteries unprotected and unmaintained but also convincingly argues how eco-friendly, anti-racist death care labor makes us thoughtful cemetery citizens.”

—Kami Fletcher, Albright College, co-founder of the Collective for Radical Death Studies

“Rosenblatt’s book brings us up close and personal and into the beauty, yes beauty of these spaces, as well as the everyday lives of people, families, and communities focused on gravesite restoration. A fascinating view from an active participant in the reclamation of institutionally neglected and historically marginalized cemeteries. An important read for anyone interested in place-making, ancestry, preservation, American history, and Black cemeteries as sites of knowledge and public engagement.”

—Antoinette T. Jackson, University of South Florida, founder and director of The Black Cemetery Network

“In graveyards where roots entangle the remains of the dead, ‘cemetery citizens’ work to clear the land and reclaim the memory of the marginalized who are buried there. Armed with shovels and rakes, this labor entails ‘scrappy care,’ but it is also driven by desires and politics of multiple kinds. Going literally into the weeds of this work ‘revising’ the past, Rosenblatt unearths the complex terrain at three African American cemeteries undergoing restoration. As analytically powerful as it is poetically ethnographic, Cemetery Citizens is stunningly profound in addressing how relations with the dead can be both remade and re-broken.”

—Anne Allison, author of Being Dead Otherwise



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