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.Read more...
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.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2015-11-09
- Reviewer: Staff
Humans have always kept the dead close by, argues Laqueur (Solitary Sex), a professor of history at the University of California, Berkley. In this learned, lyrical survey he dissects the mystery of "our capacity to... make so very much of absence and specifically of the poor, naked, inert dead body." The "history of the work of the dead," he remarks, is one of "how they dwell in us." Laqueur takes readers from Diogenes the Cynic, a fourth-century B.C.E. Greek philosopher who told his friends to leave his remains unburied because "the dead are nothing," through the parish churchyards of the 15th-century English countryside, and on to the first of the "great cemeteries": Père Lachaise in Paris, which opened in 1804 and marked the beginning of the commercialization of funerals for the rich and famous, the bourgeois, and even the poor. Laqueur also pays poignant attention to the war dead, who simply disappeared during the Napoleonic wars, but whose graves in WWI would be given the "highest level" of care. Laqueur writes that his survey is "a history of how we invest the dead... with meaning," calling it the "greatest possible history of the imagination." This massive, mesmerizing work contains much that's worth pondering. (Nov.)