Mourning the Imperial Dead in Turn-of-the-Century Egypt

By Shana E. Minkin
Submitted to Session P4755 (Memory and identity: The significance of locality in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Egypt and Israel/Palestine, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
This paper examines British and French funerals in late nineteenth-century Alexandria, Egypt. It argues that funerals reveal much that is otherwise hidden about how imperial communities were created and connected on the ground and how empire was maintained not only from above, but also in the everyday of this Ottoman, Egyptian, British, and European port city.

People with roots all over the world died in Alexandria, and in death they came into contact with consular officials, neighbors, nurses, doctors, funeral parlor employees, gravediggers, gravestone carvers, family and friends in Alexandria, in Europe, and elsewhere. Funerals thus served to underscore the complexity of the population and the unique space within which they lived and died. At the same time, funerals served to allow consulates to claim the bodies of Alexandrians as their own – to turn dynamic, complicated, once-living people into static, defined, imperial bodies. Being there to provide for the funeral, to give those imperial bodies a decent death, served to underscore the importance of individual consulates to the city. The different roles the funeral played highlight the place it had in publicly declaring a body both imperial and local, of Alexandria, and belonging to a now-set, firm category of empire, be it British or French.

The funeral was an instant of physical closure, of marking an individual’s final resting place within a national and religious framework on Alexandrian soil. And yet, it sits peculiarly at the juncture of imperial politics, commerce, and culture, both a sacred ritual and a financial transaction, both a rite and a bureaucratic moment of processing and paperwork. In the claiming of an imperial body as British or French, the funeral was the act that not only consecrated bodies into the ground, but also consecrated empire into the symbolic and physical space of Alexandria.