The Work of the Dead

A Cultural History of Mortal Remains

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Thomas W. Laqueur
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , October
     2015.
     736 pages.
     $39.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691157788.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This tome counters the wish of Diogenes the Cynic, who wanted his corpse to be tossed over a wall to be devoured by beasts. Berkeley historian Thomas W. Laqueur, whose earlier books compiled cultural surveys of the body and gender from the Greeks to Freud, and of masturbation, turns to another intimate subject: “What death leaves behind through the dead body” (xiv) takes the reader chronologically through four in-depth phases of “why the dead body matters” (1).

Laqueur applies the longue durée approach of the French Annales school to prehistoric and ancient times. Respect for the corpse, acknowledgement of its occupation at the borders of nature and culture, placement of the death of one within the social order, and how the dead “help make” our modern world comprise part 1. However, the bulk of Laqueur’s evidence derives from 1680-2000, within the purview of his expertise in English, Western European, and North American settings. This imbalance qualifies the breadth of his subtitle, but it enables a very detailed account of the post-Enlightenment gradual transition from churchyard and ecclesiastical supervision to cemetery and secular commemoration. Laqueur plumbs archives.

Documenting this shift from a space where the dead count within a weakened clerical presence, in slow pivot to a twentieth-century emphasis upon names and who the dead were, structures parts 2 and 3. Laqueur ends with what the dead consist of, when the radical revival of cremation represents a rejection of the bodily resurrection of the hallowed cadaver.

This arc spans vast accumulations of material, physical and spiritual, intellectual and religious. The enchantment and re-enchantment of the living towards the dead offers “the greatest possible history of the imagination” (17). Having despaired of extracting the testimonies of those dying, Laqueur asks instead what the living “did with and through real dead bodies,” by analyzing “what their acts meant and mean to them” (18). Relics, idolatry, aura, fakery, and necromancy display early human attempts to deal with this mortal predicament. Revenants, souls, and spirits share varieties of “persistence of being” as a “shared community” within a “complex of meanings” in his second chapter. Here, the power the dead exert over our own minds encompasses erudite reactions from Epicurus and Calvinists through Milan Kundera and Slavoj Žižek.

This collective effort of caring for what is left of the departed dwells within a “gap between what they are and what we take them to be” (81). Religion, art, politics, and poetry, in this scholar’s estimation, would not exist otherwise. This grand statement may give pause, as it may elude verification. It attests to Laqueur’s ambitious attempt to add the particular to the cosmic.

In such sweeping claims, this book leaves its most powerful impact. The granular accumulation of proof will assist academics, for it gathers arcane studies and diligent interpretations into a valuable volume. Yet as hundreds of pages demonstrate, these particulars pile up as densely as did effluvia and bones in dank churchyards that archeologists have unearthed and gravediggers had lamented. The “regime of the dead” presses down indelibly. Laqueur calculates the ratio (miniscule) between the remnants left by bones and fluids in comparison to the amount (considerable) excreted by the living within an industrialized city. Victorian reformers demanded hygiene. Their false claims of the danger of the rank corpse accelerated the trend away from crammed churchyards to planned meadows. There, increasing ranks of the dead did not wait for Judgment Day in elegiac and venerable plots where families had long relegated their village departed. In cemeteries, picnickers and strollers could enjoy their visits, where the “new regime” created “a novel and luxuriantly protean space” (212). Romantic-era notions of pastoral slumber presaged communal creation of the funeral industry and the bureaucratic register. Dramatizing memory, venerating preservation, admitting finitude, and defying salvation, modern habits of paying respect to the departed superseded ecclesiastical rites.

Burial plots and fancy funerals appealed as the poor imitated their betters. Exhumations exemplified the rationales for artistic, legal, criminal, medical, and clerical examinations. Again, Laqueur totes up intricate processes, which counted on the assurance that all the dead, in peace or especially in war, were accounted for, regulated, and tallied up neatly.

Naming the disembodied embeds them as a “reinscription of loss, one of its poor avatars, a substitute, a placeholder, a trace of a trace” (366). Laqueur may move his readers in such pauses from his scrutiny. He displays the “unprecedented scale” of technical, political, and emotional means by which recent mourners, brokers, claimants, and heirs collude to ensure post-mortem precision. Less than a third of twenty-six billion people born between 1500 and 2010 are known to us. Mormon genealogists labor to baptize all dead. Obituaries proclaimed public notice as newspapers expanded literacy and popularized devotions. These ceremonial practices generate a “commemorative culture” from the Civil War on, one which left thousands of memorials, modest or monumental, to the “absent but present dead,” among which were many vanished or irretrievable casualties of the Great War.

The author rarely admits the personal, but an aside merits mention. His father’s 1929 alma mater, a Hamburg gymnasium, lists those who died “fighting for Germany” together with those “as victims of the Holocaust” (423). Technological and emotional imperatives combine in massive records of both world wars, which made “knowing both possible and necessary” (466).

Cremation demoted death “to its physiological basis,” says Laqueur (509). Protestants interpreted the restoration of the body at the Last Judgment as metaphorical. The need to rest a body in sacred ground dwindled. Body, memory, and locale nevertheless persist today as obligations. Continuity in The Work of the Dead, Laqueur concludes, endures even as medical progress prevents acceptance of mortality among desperate families who seek, inevitably, miracles.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John L. Murphy is Professor of English Literature and Director at DeVry University.

Date of Review: 
December 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas W. Laqueur is the Helen Fawcett Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud and Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. He is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books.

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