Each person who dies has attributes that are shared with others, and almost every death can be ascribed to a cause that gives rise to multiple mortalities. Some deaths, like that of the Turkish hunter who was recently shot by a snake coiled around his gun, are freak accidents unlikely to be repeated; most are easily categorised by the identity of the deceased and the cause of death. In this way, the numberless dead can be corralled into conceptual villages - female victims of domestic violence, executives with heart attacks, starving refugees and so on. Although epidemiologists and insurance companies use these categories to map the landscape of the dead, their boundaries are rarely sealed. There are diseases endemic to particular populations and certain logical limitations on the possible combinations of personal attributes and causes of death; but the dead, like the quick, usually have multiple identities, and their departure is often over-determined. The spectral geography of the underworld is remarkably fluid; it is a place of shifting populations, constantly moving to fit the categories that the living impose on it.
LRB 23 February 1995 | PDF Download