Dead Ghetto

The concept of the "dead ghetto" derives from Jean Baudrillard (b. 1929), a contemporary French philosopher, in his book Symbolic Exchange and Death (1993). Baudrillard's work is formed primarily from the concepts of the French sociologist Marcel Mauss (1872–1950) and the Swiss philologist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913). Mauss wrote a slim volume on the gift, arguing that gift exchange (giving, receiving, counter-giving) is never voluntary, always obligatory, and reflects the totality of societal aspects. De Saussure described language as a social phenomenon, a structured system of signs or symbols. Baudrillard extended and combined these two concepts, creating the concept of how the dead are viewed by society and the living, and within that the concept of the dead ghetto.

According to Baudrillard's philosophy, in primitive societies a sign represented an object, the signified. As society became more complex the sign became more and more divorced from reality, and itself became a new reality. In the twenty-first century, for example, a television newscast of an event becomes the reality itself, although the observer never gets close to the initial objects or reality. Because society can be described entirely as a system of exchanges, Baudrillard argues that society's members are dealing with symbolic exchanges, in which a concept and its opposite become reversible. The living and the dead are such a pair, and death serves as the boundary between them. If a concept such as the afterlife, introduced for example by the Christian churches, becomes paired with life, then death, no longer having something to be paired with and exchanged, disappears.

Baudrillard continues by saying that death can also be denied, or, in a sense, abolished, by segregating the dead in graveyards, which become "ghettos." Following an analysis of Baudrillard's concept by Bradley Butterfield, one may begin with primitive societies in which life and death were seen as partners in symbolic exchanges. As society evolved the dead were excluded from the realm of the living by assigning them to graveyards, the ghettos, where they no longer have a role to play in the community of the living. To be dead is to be abnormal, where for primitives it was merely another state of being human. For these earlier societies it was necessary to use their resources through ritual feasts and celebrations for the dead in order to avoid a disequilibrium where death would have a claim on them. In more evolved societies focused on economy, death is simply the end of life—the dead can no longer produce or consume, and thus are no longer available for exchanges with the living.

However, Baudrillard argues that the "death of death" is not complete because private mourning practices still exist. Baudrillard makes a similar argument on old age: "Old age has merely become a marginal and ultimately a social slice of life—a ghetto, a reprieve and the slide into death. Old age is literally being eliminated," as it ceases to be symbolically acknowledged (Baudrillard 1993, p. 163).

Baudrillard presents an intellectual construct founded on the concepts of de Saussure and Mauss which, by contrast, are derived from a factual basis. Thus Baudrillard's construct is one step removed from reality. The majority of real people, even in the complex societies of the twenty-first century, however, have not banished death to a ghetto where the dead no longer play a role in their lives. The presence of the deceased continues to play a role in their lives on an ongoing basis (Klass, Silverman, and Nickman 1996). Because the deceased are still important to the living, Baudrillard's concept represents an interesting intellectual exercise—a hyperreality, to use his own term—but not an accurate representation of reality.

See also: Catacombs ; Cemeteries and Cemetery Reform ; Funeral Industry ; Tombs


Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death, translated by Iain Hamilton Grant. London: Sage, 1993.

Klass, Dennis, Phyllis R. Silverman, and Steven Nickman, eds. Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis, 1996.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift; Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1954.

Silverman, Sam M., and Phyllis R. Silverman. "Parent-Child Communication in Widowed Families." American Journal of Psychotherapy 33 (1979):428–441.

Internet Resources

Butterfield, Bradley. "Baudrillard's Primitivism and White Noise: 'The Only Avant-Garde We've Got.'" In the UNDERCURRENT: An Online Journal for the Analysis of the Present [web site]. Available from .




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