Reader, pass on!—don’t waste your time
O’er bad biography and bitter rhyme:
For what I am this crumbling clay ensures:
And what I was is no affair of yours. (quoted in Kichner 65)
1. When did the first inkling of your subject matter occur to you?
In a course with Dr. Athena Vrettos, who later became my dissertation advisor, I was captivated by an epitaph found in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. That epitaph became the focal point for my course seminar paper. Not long after that, I was reading Bleak House for another class with Dr. Vrettos, and I was again struck by the prominence of epitaphic themes and burial scenes in the novels we’d been discussing. Bleak House focuses on “dishonored heaps of graves” and an anonymous corpse. The Woman in White and Carmilla showcase mishandled corpses and grave-side scenes. I began to wonder why many Victorian novels seemed preoccupied with burial tropes, mistaken identity, and epitaph writing. It didn’t take much digging (pardon the awful pun) to see that these literary works echoed and explored nineteenth-century cultural concerns about remembrance and identity. In some long and fruitful talks with Professor Roger Salomon, I realized that I could easily discuss those Victorian works alongside World War I writings to contrast how war writers altered Victorian notions of individual identity in death.
2. Could you briefly describe the changes visited on Victorian practices of grief and burial by World War I?
After the catastrophic problem of burial overcrowding and mass burial during Victorian times and the later nineteenth-century emphasis on individualized burial and epitaphic individuation, World War I prompted the upset of cemeterial reform, individual identity, and epitaphic remembrance. The war forced a confrontation with mass graves and unidentified corpses reminiscent of pre-burial reform times. This struggle with wartime remembrance birthed the notion that anonymity—an absolute lack of identity in death—could be tolerated and even welcomed during the mourning process when individual corpses could not be honored, recognized, or even, quite often, located.
3. Why did you choose Bleak House as a literary exemplar of your theme?
Bleak House was that key text that provided both literal and figurative notions of burial and lost identity. Not only is the text focused on the identity of the character “Nemo” (or “no one”) who is left to rot in an unkempt graveyard, but it also features the heroine Esther Summerson’s exploration of her parentage. Because of Dickens’s ability to confront social issues (by describing an actual overcrowded cemetery, for example, that could come from the pages of an actual reform document) while he also explores burial symbolically, Bleak House was ripe for analysis.
4. Do you see contemporary events at work now to change our attitudes toward the memorialization of death as it has been practiced in the past? I’m thinking here of the American trend to cremation, predicted by Time magazine to be 50% by 2017.
I think attitudes toward burial and memorialization have been gradually yet visibly changing over the last few decades. Of course, practices vary greatly based on ethnicity, religion, customs, and so forth. Primarily in America, though, I’d guess serious economic constraints, trends toward less formalized religion, and the de-emphasis of epitaphic artistry affect how individuals are treated and remembered after death. Cremation is a simple and affordable choice for many people. Further, it seems that over the years, the popularity of tombstones offering a narrative has diminished, and, while many Americans admit to enjoying strolls through graveyards, they will encounter many tombstones that memorialize through simple identification (name, dates, and possibly role/s) rather than clever, funny, somber, or demonstrative messages. People may see funerary and burial customs to be more a production for the living, for those remembering, than for those remembered.
5. Is there something about your time at Case that helped to make this book possible?
Something? Perhaps downtime spent in reflection on Guilford House porch, valuable research hours made possible by the Arthur Adrian Dissertation Fellowship, departmental support to travel to graveyards in Europe, or interdisciplinary perspectives received during my dissertation seminar experience. Much more importantly, many “someones” encouraged and shaped me as a thinker, writer, and, ultimately, scholar over my (many) years there. Without the guiding hands of Dr. Athena Vrettos and Dr. Roger Salomon, for instance, my project would have ended up ailing, or possibly in need of its own epitaph. Luckily, the body of my work survived to become a book, and about that I could not be more delighted or grateful to those at Case who made that possible.
Heather Kichner teaches at Lorain Community College. Her book, Cemetery Plots from Victoria to Verdun: Literary Representations of Epitaph and Burial from the 19th Century through the Great War (Studies on Themes and Motifs in Literature), was published by Peter Lang in 2012.