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’s discussion of how the cemetery supplanted the church graveyard as the chief place of interment is a masterpiece of historical investigation. Showing how a complex mix of factors--including concern with public health, the waning power of the Catholic Church, and the emergence of a belief that the place where one is buried should be a matter of personal choice--produced the shift, he describes how sites were created in which the dead were separated from the living as they had not been when they were interred in or near places of worship. With the rise of cemeteries, the dead could be remembered as individuals and buried with their families in a way that was impractical in overcrowded churchyards. Hardly a sentence in Laqueur’s long book is wasted."--John Gray, New York Review of Books
"[A] sprawling meditation on mortal remains. . . . Laqueur offers an intricate historical narrative about the place the dead occupy in our lives. . . . The Work of the Dead is a methodologically bracing book."--Thomas Meaney, 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
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