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Thanatic Ethics:

The Circulation of Bodies in Migratory Spaces


The American ship the Sunny South carried “a freight of seventy dead Chinamen” from San Francisco to Hong Kong on May 15th 1855. It was a part of the large scale repatriation of human remains common throughout the nineteenth century, fuelled by the desire of Chinese emigrants to be buried in their native village. The unacceptable alternative was to be a lonely ghost wandering in limbo in a foreign land (Sinn, 265-6). This paramount desire to be buried in the home country is not unique to the Chinese. A home burial encapsulates a widely shared perception of home among emigrants. Death imbues the meaning of home and therefore the meaning of what it is to be an emigrant. The being-towards-death of those who left, erects the place of departure as a place of moral centrality (Lacroix 2018). It underpins the relations with those who stayed and who hide their fascination for foreign lands behind their accusations of selfishness, oblivion and the moral dubiousness of emigrants imbued with western values (Carling 2008). And yet, despite this willingness to be buried in the homeland, the life course of immigrants can take unanticipated trajectories. As emigrants grow old, the links with the left-behind dwindle. For want of money (body repatriation remains expensive) or of reason to get back, burial in the place of settlement becomes first an option and then a reality. The multiplication of Muslim quarters in European cemeteries is a silent testimony of the disbanding of longdistance ties for those who die too late (Lestage 2012).

In recent years, Western cemeteries accommodate a new population of those who die too early, in their attempt to cross deadly borders: the Mediterranean Sea, the Southern US desert, the Caribbean Sea, the Northern Australian shores, etc. Recent works have sought to quantify the number of casualties (Heller and Pécoud 2017; Sapkota et al. 2006). An estimated 40,000 people have perished in the Mediterranean since 2000, which makes the area the deadliest migration route in the world. Others strive to retrieve the identity of these people in the thin traces they left behind (Kobelinsky and Le Courant 2017). And when nothing material is left, what endures is the memory of tragic wrecking, commemorated by plaques, monuments or art pieces, such as the SIEV X memorial commemorating the sinking of the Tampa during which 431 people drowned trying to reach Australia (Kleist 2013). The current Covid-19 pandemic has added another dimension to the question of migrant deaths and repatriation with the disastrous prospect of outbreaks in overcrowded refugee camps and detention centres. In addition, immigrants from all walks of life are meeting untimely deaths as the pandemic takes its toll in Europe and the US. The pandemic has also resulted in massive internal migrations in countries like India of rural populations who had migrated to the urban centres for employment. With the country going in to complete lockdown, they now sought to return home sometimes by walking hundreds of kilometres across several states, resulting in several migrant deaths. The current global crisis caused by Covid-19 makes the thanatic approach in migration studies a particularly timely one.

Literature, film and visual art is replete with discussions of thanatic themes ranging from Ai Wei Wei’s art installations capturing the perilous journeys undertaken by refugees to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 2010 film Biutiful, from Edwidge Danticat’s depiction of migrating living bodies that are neither dead nor alive but remain in oceanic limbo in her short story « Children of the Sea » to Michael Ondaatje’s forensic fiction Anil’s Ghost (2000). What happens when bodies are refused repatriation? The concluding scenes of Kamila Shamsie’s novel Home Fire (2017) depicts the intersections of belonging and citizenship in death when her heroine Aneeka sits in a park in Karachi defying the gendered norms of Muslim burial, demanding her brother Parvez’s remains be repatriated to the UK for a proper burial in defiance of his characterisation as a terrorist by the British government. Similarly, the dumping of bodies overboard in neo slave narratives like Fred D’Aguiar’s Feeding the Ghosts (1997), or the Franco-Senegalese supernatural drama Atlantique (2019) by Mati Diop where the refugee crisis is symbolized by the spirits of the migrants lost at sea which return to take possession of the inhabitants in the African homeland, raise questions about the political, social and emotional impacts of such acts on communities as well as individuals. Though questions of the circulation and repatriation of migrant bodies can be found as far back as oral literature and folktales, little critical attention has been paid to this aspect of migration. « Thanatic Ethics » hopes to fill this lacuna.

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