The Greek philosopher Diogenes said that when he died his body should be tossed over the city walls for beasts to scavenge. Why should he or anyone else care what became of his corpse? In The Work of the Dead, acclaimed cultural historian Thomas Laqueur examines why humanity has universally rejected Diogenes’s argument. No culture has been indifferent to mortal remains. Even in our supposedly disenchanted scientific age, the dead body still matters—for individuals, communities, and nations. A remarkably ambitious history, The Work of the Dead offers a compelling and richly detailed account of how and why the living have cared for the dead, from antiquity to the twentieth century.
The book draws on a vast range of sources—from mortuary archaeology, medical tracts, letters, songs, poems, and novels to painting and landscapes in order to recover the work that the dead do for the living: making human communities that connect the past and the future. Laqueur shows how the churchyard became the dominant resting place of the dead during the Middle Ages and why the cemetery largely supplanted it during the modern period. He traces how and why since the nineteenth century we have come to gather the names of the dead on great lists and memorials and why being buried without a name has become so disturbing. And finally, he tells how modern cremation, begun as a fantasy of stripping death of its history, ultimately failed—and how even the ashes of the victims of the Holocaust have been preserved in culture.
A fascinating chronicle of how we shape the dead and are in turn shaped by them, this is a landmark work of cultural history.
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.
"Laqueur effectively shows that remains of the dead matter long after they decompose . . . [and his] engaging writing style enlivens this somber subject."--Library Journal
"The product of prodigious research and a subtle and sophisticated knowledge of history, anthropology, and philosophy, The Work of the Dead is as magnificent--and mindboggling--as it is monumental."--Glenn C. Altschuler, Huffington Post
"A remarkably supple and fascinating study, providing as it were the sociological and forensic underpinning of every ghost story ever told. . . . The Work of the Dead [is] both provocative and, you should pardon the term, lively (and readers should be sure not to miss the wonderfully argumentative end notes). It’ll change the way you look at being dead and buried."--Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly
"Laqueur's book is a monumental undertaking, teeming with so many absorbing anecdotes and so much vivid information that it can be read either compulsively or for an hour a day, just to keep in sight of the nub of our fears and the often romantic absurdity of our hopes and superstitions. It had this reader at least imagining many cross-generational dialogues on the subject."--Gregory Day, Sydney Morning Herald
"This massive, mesmerizing work contains much that's worth pondering."--Publishers Weekly, (starred review)
"Laqueur’s mastery of this history, and his limpid prose, make this a deeply engaging text. He renders his sentences with gorgeous profundity."--Deborah Lutz, Times Higher Education
"The Work of the Dead is an enormous, erudite, sprawling, garrulous, exhausting and brilliant piece of work. And it never forgets that thread of 'intuition and feeling'."--Economist
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