[P6514] Living with the Dead: Cemeteries, Shrines, and Collective Memory in the Middle East

Created by Alexander Shams
Wednesday, 12/01/21 2:00 pm


Across the Middle East, burial places including shrines, cemeteries, and battlefield memorials infuse the worlds of the living with meaning and shape collective memory. This panel focuses on how spaces of death intervene upon the political trajectories of the living and how the living configure their social worlds with reference to sites of burial. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork from Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq, this panel asks how tombs, shrines, memorial sites, and cemeteries transform cities and societies around them. By enchanting politics, they become symbols of political order as well as opposition. This panel asks how they become contested in the process, as the meaning of the dead and their burial places animate debates about how past sacrifices weigh upon the present.

Spaces of the dead have long been a feature of Middle Eastern urban landscapes, like the City of the Dead in Cairo or Wadi al Salaam in Najaf. Shrines and cemeteries can serve as a refuge, as they have in different ways over the centuries. But their presence is challenged by new forces, from urban gentrification, hygiene and sanitation policies demanding physical separation of the worlds of the living and the dead, and heritage discourses that see such spaces as historic monuments requiring isolation from human activity. Thanatourism has also played a role in reshaping these spaces and reorienting their meaning for public audiences (Stone & Sharpley 2008, Ashby 2017).

Building on growing interest in the role of saints (Mulder 2013, Heo 2018, Grehan 2019) and martyrs (Mittermaier 2015, Ghannam 2015) in structuring contemporary social and political life across the region, this panel asks what kind of futures the dead and their spaces of burial create for the living? What possibilities are foreclosed by the meanings imposed on bodies by political forces (Allen 2009, Talebi 2012)? Drawing on growing interest in the social worlds enabled by pilgrimage, this panel also explores how shrines can provide refuge as well as danger, as holy figures and their legacies become mobilized by competing imaginaries. Even years after death, the dead continue to exert influence and can even effuse divine presence, enabled by new technologies of death and certification. They continue to be found, identified, and (re)buried even decades later. This panel explores not only death and commemoration but also their afterlives’ ability to shape the worlds of the living.


Anthro; Anthro; Anthro; Anthro



Shahla Talebi

(Arizona State University)
Panel Participating Role(s): Discussant;

Foroogh Farhang

(Northwestern University)
Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;

Alexander Shams

(University of Chicago)
Panel Participating Role(s): Organizer; Presenter;

Elmirasadat Alihosseini

(University of Toronto)
Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;

Mahshid Zandi

(University of Toronto)
Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;