One of the perks of being the son of an Italian railway worker is that, when I was younger, I could hop on and off any train I wanted without having to buy a ticket. Those were the days before high-speed trains, when Italy’s rail network mostly comprised ‘regional’ and ‘interregional’ trains, which moved very slowly and were generally late, often stopping at every minor station along the line, as well as ‘intercity’ trains, which were reasonably fast, as they let people on and off only in the larger towns. In those years, one of my favourite destinations was Pisa. Travelling there required an early start from Venice, then a change of trains in Florence. It took about four or five hours in total, which meant I would arrive in Pisa around noon, spend a couple of hours there, and then head back to the station to catch the first available train home. I knew well the way to the wonders of the Campo dei Miracoli and its iconic leaning tower, but what I was really attracted to was not the tower, but The Triumph of Death—a fourteenth-century fresco in the old cemetery within the Campo.
Taming the Triumphant Death
Since I first learned about it from Herman Hesse’s notes from his travels in Italy, I was always fascinated by this gigantic fresco of death triumphant, which Buonamico Buffalmacco painted between 1336 and 1341, just a few years before the plague that halved the population of Florence and was immortalised by Giovanni Boccaccio in his Decameron. In the fresco, while some holy ascetics go about their daily activities and the blessed play the lute in the heavenly woods, an epic and violent battle for the souls of the dead unfolds between angels and demons. Still, the core of the fresco is occupied by a classic memento mori: a host of noble hunters and dames in elegant clothes are riding their horses when three open coffins block their way, each one containing a corpse at a different stage of decay. As one youthful rider turns back to warn the rest of the careless cortège of what lies ahead, those at the head of the line recoil at the horrible sight. Even the dogs and one of the horses lower their heads in fright. Meanwhile, at the very centre of the fresco, poor, old, and sick people beg Death to take mercy on them and liberate them from their plight, but the angel looks the other way and continues reaping the souls of the rich and powerful. According to Hesse, ‘there is no other painting, no other poem, from which the eternal message of death speaks with the same dark power except two or three verses of almost disconsolate rawness in the Psalms, in the Book of Sirach, and in the Apocalypse’ (1990: 6).
But it was not only this fresco that was such a macabre attraction for me; in those years, I often travelled to the most beautiful, monumental graveyards in northern Italy. The closest one was Venice’s San Michele, a whole island that since Napoleonic times has been entirely dedicated to the dead. Known mostly as the resting place of Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky, San Michele has many hidden gems to offer, and I remember spending hours looking for interesting epigraphs. I particularly remember jotting down the poem inscribed on the gravestone of a long-forgotten musician who died in the early twentieth century; I don’t have those notes with me anymore, but I still remember his name, Romeo Suppancich. I also often visited the church of Santa Croce in Florence, with its graves and memorials to some of the most important figures in Italian history, including Galileo Galilei and Niccolò Machiavelli. Santa Croce was immortalised by Ugo Foscolo in his 1806 poem Dei sepolcri, a scathing indictment of Napoleon’s edict of Saint-Cloud that forbade burials within city walls. But instead of being interested in the urne de’ forti (the ‘urns of the strong’, the tombs of famous people about which Foscolo sang), I always tried to read the inscriptions on the graves of those unmemorable citizens who managed to be buried in the church thanks to their charitable acts or, most likely, generous donations and bribes. There was an entire corridor paved in gravestones of this type, consumed by centuries of visitors stepping on them, which always felt very wrong to me.
Even though I don’t have many opportunities to travel to Italian graveyards anymore, I keep reading the occasional book on death and cemeteries. Some time ago, I happened to read The Hour of Our Death (2008), a fantastic volume in which historian Philippe Ariès discusses Western attitudes towards death in the past millennium or so. After accounting for how death, until recently, presented two consistent characteristics—a familiar simplicity underscored by certain sets of rites, and a very public nature—Ariès explains how, starting from the second half of the twentieth century, death became more and more ‘medicalised’ and began to be relegated to hospitals and other places where it would remain out of sight of most. This leads him to conclude that ‘[t]he ancient attitude in which death is close and familiar yet diminished and desensitized is too different from our own view, in which it is so terrifying that we no longer dare to say its name’ (Ariès 2008: 28). According to Ariès, the familiar death is a tame form of death, but he points out that ‘when we call this familiar death the tame death, we do not mean that it was once wild and that it was later domesticated. On the contrary, we mean that it has become wild today when it used to be tame.’ In other words, by banishing death to the realm of the unseen and the unsaid, we have become much more unprepared to deal with it.
But is it true that death has receded so much from our daily life as to become ‘wild’ and extraneous to us? From my perspective, I would say yes, and no. Undoubtedly, much effort has been made to put death out of view at this stage of late capitalism, as we are constantly encouraged to either work harder or enjoy life, which really means earning and spending more money without lingering too much on the impermanence of our existence. However, there are two caveats. First, this is a very Euro-American–centric point of view—and this should not be read as a critique of Ariès, who makes it very clear that his book is about ‘Western’ attitudes. When I started travelling to Cambodia a few years back, one of the things I found most fascinating was how death pervades daily life there—and not only in terms of the country’s tragic recent past. Cambodian funeral practices, masterly described by Erik Davis (2016), give us a hint of this. For instance, when someone dies, it is common to this day to place a coin in the mouth of the corpse right before it is cremated. Once the cremation is over, children in the family rush to sift through the ashes and charred bones with their bare hands, looking for the coin and for the teeth of the deceased, believing they will bring good fortune to the finders. I also remember how, during my first visit to the family of my partner in the Cambodian countryside, I had to pay my respects to the remains of her father, which were preserved in a small stupa right next to the entrance to their house. It was on that occasion that she told me how, after her father’s funeral, she had travelled to Phnom Penh with some of his bones in her backpack to scatter them in the Mekong River. It is hard to imagine holding death in more familiar terms than this.
Second, while the physical act of dying is now more hidden from public sight than ever, we are witnessing various manifestations of death making a comeback in our daily lives, but in a sanitised and, most importantly, marketised form—something I would call ‘everyday necro-capitalism’. There is no lack of examples. Some readers, for instance, will remember the morbid fascination with which international media a couple of years ago covered the news that strippers were being hired to celebrate funerals in rural China (and the ensuing government crackdown). However, while this eroticised meta-necro-capitalism that highlights curious everyday necro-capitalist practices to generate clicks and revenue is itself fascinating, what intrigues me the most is how death has been popping up increasingly often on my own social media feeds. On Twitter, due to some obscure twist in the algorithm over the past few months, I have been repeatedly targeted by advertisements from an Australian company that offers prepaid funerals. After being warned that funeral insurance is a ‘hugely profitable industry that makes money by ripping off consumers’, I am told that prepaid funerals present several advantages: ‘Once it’s paid, it’s paid’, ‘Family calls us and we take care of the rest’, ‘Costs 75% less than a traditional funeral’, ‘4.92/5 customer rating’, ‘No hidden fees, ever’. Similarly, friends report being targeted by ads for services that, for instance, offer life-size replicas of their favourite pets for the time when the animal dies.
For a while, I have also been following the social media of Taffo Funeral Services, a funeral house established in Rome in 1940 and now active in several other Italian cities. Over the past few years, Taffo has become a household name in Italy thanks to its savvy communication strategy, with its memes and posts often going viral due to their ingenious ability to mix politics and a sacrilegious mockery of death. Scrolling down their timeline on Facebook, one discovers a long series of such posts. For instance, at the end of July 2021, to make light of those in Italy who saw ‘green passes’ as a step towards ‘health dictatorship’, they posted the image of a coffin accompanied by the jest: ‘We might be the only ones to let you in without a green pass.’ A few weeks earlier, on 2 June 2021, Italy’s national day, they posted an image with three urns, one in each of the colours of the Italian flag, and the text: ‘We are ready for death’ (a line taken from the country’s national anthem). The previous month, on 1 May 2021, it was a set of images of hands emerging from the earth holding work tools, accompanied by the caption: ‘We bury everything except rights.’ Occasionally, their messages arouse indignation—for instance, on 25 November 2019, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, there was an uproar when they posted an image with the text: ‘There are two types of women: those who denounce and [a photo of a coffin]’ (see Figure 1). The reception is, however, usually overwhelmingly positive. Still, even though these messages are funny, politically savvy, and well-crafted, the truth is all these posts are nothing more than a means to sell a service. It is, once again, a way to marketise death.
And there is also something to say about how death’s simulacra (in Baudrillard’s sense) are now everywhere in the entertainment industry, as one can see from the proliferation of zombie TV shows in recent years. From The Walking Dead (2010–) and its multiple spin-offs to Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die (2019) and from Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead (2021) to the expected appearance of zombie superheroes in the upcoming Marvel animated series What If … ? (2021), zombies have become a true money-making machine, somewhat betraying their origins as a critique of capitalist modernity in the counterculture of the 1960s (George Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968). While the The Walking Dead complex can be interpreted more as a cautionary tale about the dangers of a breakdown in civilisation, some of these movies still attempt to critique capitalist reality. If, as I pointed out elsewhere (Franceschini 2020), in The Dead Don’t Die we see zombies repeatedly engaging in the same consumerist behaviour with which they were characterised when alive, Army of the Dead goes even further. Set in a Las Vegas devastated by the zombie apocalypse, it features a money heist in a casino infested by zombie strippers, zombie dancers, and even a zombie tiger. It is all very entertaining, for sure, but when even their (non)death fails to release zombies from the market, are we sure these cultural products are not simply perpetuating the illusion of capitalist realism?
In some cases, the industry of death can also paradoxically serve as a refuge from the vagaries of the market. In a recent article, anthropologist Chris K.K. Tan (2020) construed the practice of ‘ghost marriages’ in some rural areas in China—a custom that leads to corpses (most often of women) being traded for a ceremony to appease the soul of someone who died unmarried—as a form of resistance to capitalist modernity. This is often described as the most extreme and notorious of necro-capitalist practices, coldly modern in its money-centredness, but Tan (2020: 123) makes a compelling argument for interpreting this tradition as ‘an instance of resistance against this inhumane modernity’ due to its emphasis on the warm, human-centred affective labour performed by these cadavers. In another article, Tan (2021) also realised that in recent years more young Chinese people have been seeking employment in mortuaries, overcoming the stigma associated with the profession. This is not because these jobs pay well—they rarely earn more than 5,000 yuan per month (around US$775)—but because they see this as an alternative to the forced socialisation entailed in other types of jobs or, more importantly, because the position often comes with benefits such as enrolment in the national insurance scheme, subsidised housing and meals, and lifelong employment. As Tan tells us, many of these youths ‘are tired of brutal work schedules, fierce competition, and ageism found in the country’s private sector’. While stories like these might appear to be a negation of necro-capitalism, I would argue they are, in fact, just another manifestation of this phenomenon, as they show death increasingly bound to the market, even when it acts as its apparent denial.
Even though it has much less currency than the popular binomial ‘necro-politics’/‘biopolitics’, ‘necro-capitalism’ is a relatively well-established scholarly term. Back in 2008, Subhabrata Bobby Banerjee published a pioneering article on this concept, defining it as ‘contemporary forms of organizational accumulation that involve dispossession and the subjugation of life to the power of death’, and used the impact of the resources industry in developing countries and the privatisation of war and the military as prominent examples of necro-capitalist practices. Within this framework, private companies that provide mercenary and carceral services, like Erik Prince’s notorious Blackwater (later renamed Xe Services and then Academi) and Frontier Services Group—which was recently in the spotlight for its planned involvement in Xinjiang (Roche 2019)—have been described as ‘necrocapitalism in full bloom; the blending of war and business; one step closer to the necrolypse’ (Fleming 2018: 139). More recently, Sabina Lawreniuk (2020: 201) has written about ‘necrocapitalistic networks’ in relation to the fate of Cambodian garment workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, arguing that ‘the crisis exhumes a crude reality that production networks are infrastructures of biopower that foster, amplify, and optimise life for consumers at the expense of the depletion, injury, and death of workers’.
While certainly less dramatic than war, the mercenary industry, and starving workers, the practices of ‘everyday necro-capitalism’ such as those I have sketched in this short essay deserve more attention. They might look kitsch and silly, but they showcase a triumphant market, before which even death apparently must bow. One could interpret them as attempts to tame the wild modern death discussed by Ariès, but to me they seem simple attempts to obfuscate underlying truths about life, death, and the limitations of the market. In this sense, they mark a stark departure from our relationship with death in ages past. Writing in the 1970s, Ivan Illich (1976) argued that the iconography of death had passed through five distinct stages over the past 500 years: 1) the fifteenth-century ‘dance of the dead’; 2) the Renaissance dance at the bidding of the skeleton man, the so-called Dance of Death; 3) the bedroom scene of the ageing lecher under the ancien régime; 4) the nineteenth-century doctor in his struggle against the roaming phantoms of consumption and pestilence; and 5) the mid-twentieth-century doctor who steps between the patient and his death. To these he added a sixth stage for the dominant image of his age, which—similar to what Ariès would argue a few years later—was death under intensive hospital care. In this last incarnation, Illich read new levels of social control befitting the industrial ethos of capitalist society, a new dynamic that led to a loss of dignity for death, which was now supposedly ‘managed’ by doctors—even though, to be honest, it is possible to find echoes of this loss of dignity in literature way before the mid twentieth century, most famously in Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1910 novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, in which the author bemoans the triviality of dying in a hospital:
Now there is dying in 559 beds. Factory-style, of course. With such enormous production the individual death is not carried out so well, but that’s not what matters either. It’s a question of numbers. Who today will pay something for a death that has been well worked out? No one. Even the rich, who could afford to die in great detail, are beginning to get careless and indifferent: the desire to have a death of one’s own is becoming even rarer. (Rilke 2000)
If we consider the current manifestations of ‘everyday necro-capitalism’, we might be well into a seventh stage. While the physical act of dying remains solidly in the realm of medicine, death is now often represented as being under the authority not of doctors, but of the market. Whether it be cautionary depictions of a collapse of society in the wake of a zombie apocalypse, targeted funeral advertisements, or attempts to escape from the vagaries of the market by seeking refuge in the funeral industry, we see death subordinate to capitalist relations. This represents a stark rupture not only with the triumphant death portrayed in medieval artworks such as Buonamico Buffalmacco’s fresco, but also with centuries of representation. While many will undoubtedly see this as a sign of progress—after all, knowing that death is unavoidable, why should we live in its constant shadow, why shouldn’t we be able to laugh at death to exorcise our fear of it—it is also important to realise that this shift ultimately reinforces the perception that there is no dimension of human relations that remains unfettered from capitalism, nor can there be (which is the basic tenet of capitalist realism). Elated as we might feel at seeing death humiliated, there is a certain sadness in realising that even the old Leveller has now been turned into a servant of the status quo.