The Introduction begins with Georg W. F. Hegel's interpretation of burial in The Phenomenology of Spirit as a key operation through which spirit preserves and celebrates itself across the threshold of death. It stresses the role of Sophocles's Antigone in the formation of Hegel's view on this topic and his fascination with the heroine's necropolitical engagement in caring for the body of her dead brother. Before summarizing the chapters, it offers a short discussion and definition of the key concept of necropolitics.
Chapter 1 presents the main theoretical argument of the book through a comparative analysis of different phenomenological attempts to capture how the dead remain and linger on in the minds of the living, notably in the work of Jan Patočka, Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, and Martin Heidegger. It follows how the phenomenological analyses, in the attempt to move beyond a psychoanalytical account of the "interiorization" of the dead as simply an incomplete process of mourning, leads them to develop a set of new concepts for the experience of a social-ontological middle ground. Among them are "living-on," "afterlife," and "spectrality," culminating in a detailed exploration of the theory of "historicity" and having-been in Heidegger's Being and Time, which can be read as a theory of being with the dead revealed as it eventually plays out in his interpretation of Sophocles's Antigone.
Chapter 2 connects the anthropological study of mortuary culture to fundamental philosophical concerns of afterlife and survival of spirit. It is largely oriented around one key text in mortuary studies or thanatology, written in 1907 by one of Émile Durkheim's most gifted students, Robert Hertz, who soon thereafter died in the First World War. The response within the community of sociologists under the leadership of Marcel Mauss, as it grieved its dead and sought to reconstitute itself, is compared to the Indonesian Dayaks and their extraordinary burial culture in a larger argument of how to understand death, mourning, and afterlife across cultural horizons in the shaping of "spectral communities."
Chapter 3 shows that the topic of ancestral worship and cult of the dead became a dominant theme in nineteenth-century human sciences of sociology of religion and anthropology, also influencing psychoanalysis. By comparing Hegel's understanding of the distinction between a culture of spirit and a culture of the ghost, it shows that this domain was also politicized from its inception and made into a conceptual tool for the creation of colonial hierarchies, most notably in the work of James Frazer. With the self-critical transformation of anthropology from the 1970s onward, this legacy was dismantled, but often at the price of fully understanding the deeper connection between a culture of death and the general problem of tradition as always a precarious balance between living and struggling with the dead.
Chapter 4 begins with Max Weber's dismal portrait of a disenchanted modernity in which death can have no meaning, which is contrasted to the extraordinary rise around exactly the same time of mortuary culture within democratic societies, notably in monuments to the unknown soldier. It criticizes Benedict Anderson's thesis that necropolitical activities do not belong within liberal and socialist politics, showing that, on the contrary, it was made into a core element of contemporary enlightened culture from the French Revolution onward, in various attempts to forge a civil religion. It challenges traditional sociology to develop a more complex theory of being with the dead as a socio-ontological category in its own right, drawing partly on the work of Alfred Schütz, who sought to combine Weber and Edmund Husserl.
With the rise of archaeology and its discoveries of the most ancient Paleolithic burials, the general idea that humans bury their dead was formed. Three sections (sites) of Chapter 5 analyze archaeology's engagement with human remains. The first shows how its evolutionary-biological models led it to confront the origin of culture as symbolization. The second discusses how the positivist claim to have privileged access to the social structure of past societies through its graves triggered the internal disciplinary feuds between "processual" and "post-processual" perspectives. Finally, as archaeology was confronted with claims from the descendants of the indigenous populations whose graves it desecrated, it was also forced to confront its necropolitical complicity in colonial violence, leading it to adopt the Vermillion Accord concerning the rights of the dead. Yet throughout these debates it never articulated its own existential-ontological ethos as also a mode of being with the dead.
Chapter 6 depicts Odysseus's journey to the land of the dead (the Nekya) as a paradigmatic scene for understanding the ambiguous desire of the historical imagination, as then developed by the early Greek historians. It captures the wish to return and speak to the dead but also a fear of coming too close to the dead. The chapter then moves to a critical discussion of Michel de Certeau and his argument that the historian buries the dead to get rid of them and to maintain the division between the living and the dead. The chapter then exemplifies the ambiguous position of the historian vis-à-vis the past through the debate around the so-called Homeric question in historical philology, in which the ambition to reach the real historical Homer brought out the tensions within historical consciousness in an exemplar way.
Chapter 7 addresses how from early on writing becomes an integral part of burial culture, especially in ancient Egypt. The analysis relies mainly on Jan Assmann's work on Egyptian burial culture, and it brings out how this historical material motivates and grounds his theory of cultural memory, which he develops with Aleida Assmann. Cultural memory studies can in fact be seen as the most ambitious theoretical effort to explore the underlying structure of how humans continue to live with the dead. In a comparison between the work of Assmann and Derrida, the chapter traces the shared origin of deconstructive philosophy and cultural memory studies, critically recounting the implicit Hegelian legacy of Derrida.