The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. By Thomas W. Laqueur. Princeton University Press, 736 pp., $39.95.
This is a monumental work of history—the history of an idea as much as the history of a physical thing. In this massive book of 557 pages (not including the extensive notes), historian Thomas W. Laqueur recounts the ways in which varieties of human cultures have dealt with human remains. More than just a history of burial and cremation (and many more) customs, however, this work delves into the idea of death itself. We see how varieties of cultures across religious spectrums have dealt with human remains as reflective of their own views of death. Laqueur’s ultimate thesis is this: the dead have power over the living.
At the outset, the author quotes Diogenes (ca. 412-323 BCE) as telling his students that when he dies, he wants his body flung over the city wall to be devoured by beasts, because he won’t need it any more.
This book is about how and why Diogenes was right (his or any body forever stripped of life cannot be injured), but also existentially wrong, wrong in a way that defies all cultural logic. It is about why the dead body matters, everywhere and across time, as well as in particular times and particular places. It matters because the living need the dead far more than the dead need the living. It matters because the dead make social worlds. It matters because we cannot bear to live at the borders of our mortality.
The dead—and how we, the living, feel about them—have influenced art and architecture. They shape culture and community. Meaning is given to life through reflection on death and on the dead.
While Laqueur pays some attention to non-European cultural practices, the focus of this book is the European and “Western” traditions. In particular, he focuses on shifts beginning during the Enlightenment and continuing into the modern era. Part II, entitled “Places of the Dead,” traces the primary shift from churchyard burial to cemetery burial as reflective of a secularization of society. No longer is death and the “keeping” of the dead the purview of the church for its parishioners. Death has been democratized and, in a way, secularized with a locus into public cemeteries that are more like city parks.
Part III, “Names of the Dead,” focuses on the modern (19th century and beyond) focus on remembering the names of the dead, also known as necronominalism. This term refers to the kinds of practices that happen at soldiers’ memorials, on gravestones, and at memorials which carefully list names of those who disappeared in tragedies like the Shoah, Argentina’s Dirty War, or the attacks of September 11, 2001. Laqueur places focus on necronominalism within a democratizing context: just as each person’s name is worthy of remembrance, each person’s life has the same value as another person’s life. The 20th and 21st centuries are characterized by memorials with many names on them rather than memorials to the one great general or leader.
Laqueur closes his book with a history of the modern practice of cremation. He argues that cremation, as it is practiced and conceived in the modern era, is a culmination of the secularization of death. Dead bodies are now conceived of as belonging to the realm of medicine rather than the realm of religion. As the prevalence of cremation and private distribution of ashes is rising, Laqueur indicates that there is more work to be done on helping our culture to understand the relation of this phenomenon to our life. He leaves us with a lingering, if not disturbingly important question: What are we saying about living based upon how we dispose of the remains of our dead?
For pastors who encounter these questions on a daily basis, it’s helpful to think on a historical scale, and to understand the place of ritual and practice in meaning-making. What meaning do we give to life by our rituals? In what way are our rituals around the dead tied up with prior understandings of life and death? To what degree do we want to maintain those connections or conversely, to what degree would we benefit from challenging them? Laqueur’s historical study provides the framework for asking those questions, and arriving at some suggested futures for the work of caring for the dead as we make meaning for the living.