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.
Awards and Recognition
- Winner of the 2016 George L. Mosse Prize, American Historical Association
- Winner of the 2016 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature, McGill University
- Winner of the 2016 Stansky Book Prize, North American Conference on British Studies
- Winner of the 2018 Laura Shannon Prize in Contemporary European Studies, Nanovic Institute
- Winner of the 2016 PROSE Award in European & World History, Association of American Publishers
- 2016 Gold Medal Winner in World History, Independent Publisher Book Awards
- One of The Guardian’s Best Books of 2015, selected by Alison Light
- One of Flavorwire’s 10 Best Books by Academic Publishers in 2015
- One of Flavorwire’s 15 Best Nonfiction Books of 2015
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, Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, and Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture, 1780–1850. He is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books.
"This passionate and compassionate book is nothing short of a magnum opus. In it one of the most original and daring historians of our time guides the reader on an unexpected journey through churchyards, cemeteries, and crematoriums, challenging common wisdom and offering startling new insights into the meaning of our ways of caring for the dead."—Lynn Hunt, author of Writing History in the Global Era
"Thomas Laqueur's magnificent book is haunted by the ancient Cynic philosopher Diogenes, who wanted his corpse simply thrown over the walls of the city for wild dogs to eat. Why humans do not dispose of the dead in such a way, why we feel compelled as a species to treat our mortal remains with such an astonishing variety of rituals, is the subject of this deeply learned and richly detailed meditation. Eschewing simple explanations, ranging across centuries and cultures, plunging with unflagging energy into vast archives, Laqueur discloses and explores the work that the dead do for the living. The Work of the Dead is like a vast canvas in which the reader can somehow see at the same moment the tiny buttons on a frock coat and the curvature of the earth. The book is a moving triumph of scholarship and the historical imagination."—Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
"An astonishingly erudite and beautifully written history that is both epic and intimate, The Work of the Dead exhumes subtle and seismic shifts in the vital place that the dead have among the living. Ranging from the earliest burial practices to the modern cemetery and crematorium, Thomas Laqueur reminds us that how we treat the dead is a key to understanding the cultures of the living. Who would have thought the dead could provide so much insight and illumination?"—John Brewer, Caltech
"This is a truly great book—a milestone of scholarship and a joy to read. The brilliance and richness of each chapter are thrilling, and the movement between literary examples, philosophical discussion, and a vast array of historical sources is simply incredible."—Claudio W. Lomnitz, Columbia University
"The Work of the Dead is an enormous, erudite, garrulous, exhausting and brilliant piece of work. And it never forgets that thread of ‘intuition and feeling.' Diogenes will be turning in his grave."—The Economist
"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 Altschuler, Huffington Post