Happening Now

Middle East Studies

Osman Balkan

Swarthmore College


The Political Afterlives of Dead Migrants

In situations where migratory processes have introduced spatial discontinuities between the country of birth and death, the act of burial serves as a means to assert belonging, attachment, and perhaps even loyalty to a particular group, nation, or place. It confers a sense of fixity to identities that are more fluid and ambivalent in life. This paper examines what happens to migrant bodies after they die. It argues that the governance of the dead is intimately tied to the construction of the nation and the enactment of sovereign power. Through a comparative study of the mortuary practices of Muslims in Europe, it highlights the ways that death structures political membership and identity. Drawing on multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Berlin and Istanbul, which included participant observation with Muslim undertakers in Islamic funeral homes as well as interviews with bereaved families, bureaucrats, religious functionaries, and representatives of funeral aid societies and Islamist NGOs, it shows how the corpse functions as a political object by shaping claims about citizenship and collective identity. I argue that in contexts where the boundaries of the nation and its membership are contested, burial decisions are political decisions that offer insight into larger existential questions and political struggles about the meaning of home and homeland. While burial in Europe offers a symbolically powerful means for migrants and their children to assert political membership and foster a sense of belonging, the widespread practice of posthumous repatriation to countries of origin illustrates the continued importance of transnational ties and serves as an indictment of an exclusionary socio-political order.


Osman Balkan is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College. He earned his B.A. from Reed College and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. His research and teaching interests include migration and citizenship, Islam and Muslims in the West, race, ethnicity, and nationalism, Europe, the Middle East, and necropolitics. Balkan is currently working towards the completion of his first book manuscript, Dying Abroad. His work has been published in journals such as Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, Journal of Intercultural Studies, Contemporary French Civilization, and in edited volumes including The Democratic Arts of Mourning and Turkey's Necropolitics.

Keywords: migration, belonging, governance of death, mortuary practices, political membership and identity, citizenship, meaning of home and homeland,