Lacquer’s Cultural History of Mortal Remains

aa=work of the deadIntroducing The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remainsby Thomas W. Laqueur

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.

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

Hardcover | 2016 | $39.95 | £29.95 | ISBN: 9780691157788…………………736 pp. | 6 x 9 | 18 color illus. 101 halftones.

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.


Preface ix
Acknowledgments xv
Introduction: The Work of the Dead 1
         Part I The Deep Time of the Dead 29
1 Do the Dead Matter? 35
2 The Dead Body and the Persistence of Being 55
3 The Cultural Work of the Dead 80
        Part II Places of the Dead 107
4 The Churchyard and the Old Regime 112
The Development of the Churchyard 114
Language 117
Place 121
The Church and Churchyard in the Landscape 121
Necrogeography 123
Necrobotany 133
Necrotopology and Memory 137
The Life and Afterlife of the Churchyard in Literature 141
The Passage of the Dead to the Churchyard 145
Law 148
Exclusion from the Churchyard 148
The Claims of the Dead Body on the Parish Churchyard 151
The Claims of the Parish on the Dead Body 153
The Economics of Churchyard Burial 155
The Right to Burial and the Crisis of the Old Regime 161
Enlightenment Scandals 182
Voltaire 189
David Hume 203
5 The Cemetery and the New Regime 211
The Danger of the Dead and the Rise of the Cemetery 215
Genealogies of the New Regime 238
Imagination: Elysium, Arcadia, and the Dead of the
Eighteenth Century 238
Cimetière du Père-Lachaise 260
Distant Lands and the Imperial Imagination 265
The Age of the Cemetery 271
Novelty 272
Necrogeography and Necrobotany 279
Cemeteries and Capitalism 288
Religious Pluralism in the Age of the Cemetery 294
Reform, Revolution, and the Cemetery 305
Class, Family, and the Cemetery 309
Putting the Dead in Their Place: Pauper Funerals and Proper Funerals, Burials and Reburials 312
Disrupted Bodies 336

                       Part III Names of the Dead 363
6 The Names of the Dead in Deep Time 367
Names of the Dead in Times of War 375
Names of the Dead in Times of Peace 382
7 The Rise of the Names of the Dead in Modern History 388
8 The Age of Necronominalism 413
Names over Bodies 415
Names and the Absent but Present Body 417
Monumental Names 421
Names of the Vanished Dead 431
9 The Names of the Great War 447
Part IV Burning the Dead 489
10 Disenchantment and Cremation 495
11 Ashes and History 523
Different Enchantments 524
Ashes in Their Place 542
Afterword: From a History of the Dead to a History of Dying 549
Notes 559
Image Credits 679
Index 681
Plates follow page 408


“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

“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

“[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

“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

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

“[The Work of the Dead] is, quite simply, an extraordinary book. . . . [I]n short, this is the work of a great historian doing what we all do, only better: reckoning with death as we bide time until our own.”–Darrin M. McMahon, Literary Review

“A major work of scholarship on an undiscovered country, the land of the dead, which, as it turns out, has had major implications for the living. Laqueur’s book, which begins with Diogenes’ claim that his dead body should be thrown over the gates for the dogs, aims to show that our care for the dead (‘materially and imaginatively’) marks ‘the sign of our emergence from the order of nature into culture’.”–Jonathan Sturgeon, Flavorwire (One of Flavorwire’s Ten Best Books by Academic of 2015)

“Laqueur’s detailed stories enable us to see ‘the work of the dead’ in action as it were, sustaining the old and forging the new. . . . Dazzling in its scope, expertly researched and crafted, The Work of the Dead shows us what is important about our humanity and longings. It is also a page-turner and a terrific read.”–Sharon R. Kaufman, Los Angeles Review of Books

“After being asked what he would like to have done with his body after he died, the Greek philosopher Diogenes replied that he wanted it thrown out for animals to devour. Thousands of years later, his answer can still shock. Thomas Laqueur explains why in his sweeping history of the way humans have grappled with death–an abstract terror made concrete by the bodies that remain when the dead have passed on. Combining anthropological reflections on the cultural functions of the dead with historical investigations of the shifting ways their bodies have been treated, Laqueur uses the stubborn resistance to Diogenes’ provocation to explore the world the dead left behind.”–Tim Shenk, Dissent

“Poetically, powerfully sweeping across human history, Laqueur explores what the rituals of caring for the departed reveal about the living. Their story is ours; their absence shapes art and architecture, communities and civilizations. In every era and every culture, Laqueur finds the dead body imbued with meaning.”Swarthmore Bulletin

“Laqueur’s venerable research all leads to one principal concluding thought, which is that while we can know logically that the human corpse is unrelated to the personality it once held, it is the most intimately connected material thing that is left of a life.”–Juniper Quin, SevenPonds

“This thought-provoking tome, erudite and finely-written, seemingly encapsulates all past uttering on the dead in our fleetingly short lives.”–Julie Peakman, History Today

“[An] invariably fascinating treatment of a morbid subject.”Choice

“Poetically, powerfully sweeping across human history, Laqueur explores what the rituals of caring for the departed reveal about the living. Their story is ours; their absence shapes art and architecture, communities and civilizations. In every era and every culture, Laqueur finds the dead body imbued with meaning.”Swarthmore Bulletin

***   ***


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