Booked is a monthly series of Q&As with authors by contributing editor Timothy Shenk. For this interview, he spoke with Thomas Laqueur about The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton University Press, 2015).
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.
Timothy Shenk: “Around 1800,” you write, “a thousand-year-old regime of the dead began to crumble.” The new order would be defined by the cemetery, and it has persisted into the present—so much so that it can be difficult to imagine an alternative. What was the earlier system that we lost?
Thomas Laqueur: Edward Gibbon, the great historian of the fall of Rome, identified the rise of Christianity with a new order of the dead. After the conversion of Constantine in 325 AD, emperors and generals “devoutly visited the sepulchers of a tent-maker and a fisherman,” and other martyrs at churches like St. Peter’s in Rome. Indeed Christian burial around the bodies of the special dead often preceded churches themselves which then came to be built on these sacred sites. Gradually churches came to have churchyards which gathered together the dead of the community over the generations. The greatest penalty of excommunication became exclusion from that space: the only space in which one could be buried as a human being. To be cast out meant to be buried like a dog. So in the old order there was only one place for the body—the churchyard—to which access was guarded by ecclesiastical authorities who also attended to the dying and prayed for their souls. The thousand-year-old regime was one in which the dead belonged to priests and not as in classical antiquity to families or on occasion to the state.
Shenk: You argue that the shift from churchyard to cemetery was bound up with a host of other transformations, including the making of modernity itself (a big point that I want to get to later). Yet the change was not a simple process, or a straightforward one. The ambiguities of the transition period were captured in the reaction to the death of Voltaire, one of the era’s great skeptics. What does the response to Voltaire’s death reveal about what you call “the Enlightenment moment in the history of the dead”?
Laqueur: There were major controversies surrounding the death and burial of most of the great French Enlightenment figures. (Rousseau was an exception because, as a Protestant, he could not be buried in sacred ground.) The greatest and most notorious of these controversies swirled around the death and burial of Voltaire. There were two related issues. First, did he on his death bed take last rites and recant his views? And, if so, did he do this because he finally understood that to die outside the church was to die in misery, or because he was somehow tricked into conformity by the threat of having his body excluded from proper burial? The second issue had to do with his body. Assuming, as the local priest testified, that he had not properly taken last rites, what should be done with his body? The church of course would have excluded him from proper burial; his friends, who vehemently denied that Voltaire had backed off of any of his anti-clerical views or that he had died the agonizing death of an atheist, sought ways to have him interred in consecrated ground despite ecclesiastical opposition. In the end they managed to whisk his body off to a monastic burial ground to which his nephew had connections and the ecclesiastical authorities decided not to push the issue further.
The controversy arose out of one of the most deeply divisive issues of the late Enlightenment and revolutionary periods, and was interpreted and reinterpreted over the years. The major eighteenth-century right-wing account of the origins of the French Revolution argued, for example, that the conspiracy of infidels and philosophes that tried to hide the secret of Voltaire’s purportedly anguished, godless death was also behind the collapse of the Old Regime. And on the other side, the tyranny of ecclesiastical authorities in excluding some of the dead from decent burial was regarded as exemplary of clerical tyranny more generally. All of this speaks to the tensions that led to the rise of a new and far more open order of the dead.
Shenk: The controversy that erupted around Voltaire’s death was intense, but it was also a product of its moment. Just a few decades later, you note, the uproar almost certainly would have been avoided, because, by that point, the cemetery system had emerged. You call the new regime “a more cosmopolitan necrogeography,” and it’s an apt description for an order managed more by bureaucrats and doctors than by priests. From one perspective, this seems like a modernization and democratization of death. But the rise of the cemetery was part of an even larger transformation—in your words, “the great nineteenth-century conversation about the new commercial and industrial order, about what would become of society . . . in the age of the cash nexus.” What was this new system, and what does it tell us about the other changes that were convulsing Europe?
Laqueur: The clearest answer I can give is a negative one: the new system—the cemetery—was not a churchyard. It was open to anyone; it allowed for the gathering of the dead of a great variety of communities of different religious and political beliefs; it made its own history through a bricolage of architecture and landscape. Cemeteries were parks for the dead open to the public.
Cemeteries did not represent a democratization of death unless one regards the market in graves as itself democratic. In the churchyard there was at best an imperfect market. There was essentially no freehold or even long leasehold in the ground of the churchyard or the fabric of the church. Of course the rich were buried more grandly than the poor, but in principle the place of burial in the old order belonged to the Christian community of a place.
The new system of the cemetery was cosmopolitan, because anyone could get in. More to the point, anyone could buy their way in. Land for burial was, as it had been in antiquity, privately held; it could be owned on roughly the same terms as any land; anything could be built on it with little more than what we would call zoning restrictions. And the poor, who had been essential to the cultural meaning of the old order, are invisible in common graves under smooth lawns because they could not afford to buy plots. Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” the most printed and recited English poem of that period, bears testimony to the trees, the undulating ground, and the presence of the ordinary dead in the churchyard that would all be missing in the cemetery:
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
Shenk: One of the most astute observers of the world that made the cemetery system possible was Karl Marx. He was also, as you observe, a pointed critic of those who kept their gaze locked on the dead. “The revolution of the nineteenth century,” he wrote in 1852, “must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content.” Marx was speaking metaphorically, but it’s still striking that his own grave has become a revered site for later Marxists. That paradox reflects one of your central preoccupations in the book. Marxists visiting the grave are looking for meaning in death, even though they’re part of a tradition that’s rejected the religious convictions that once made the search tenable.
The tension between those positions, you argue, is a product of the history described in this book. To oversimplify: today death is a medical phenomenon, but our expectations are still shaped by an earlier moment when it was seen as a theological event. “Ours is a disenchanted enchantment,” you write. “We believe despite ourselves.” If thoroughgoing secularization is impossible, and so is a revival of the medieval worldview, does this mean we have reached a kind of end of history for the work of the dead?
Laqueur: When Marx died in 1883, he was originally buried in a modest plot in the thoroughly bourgeois Highgate Cemetery. Engels et al were burying the dead in the hope of a new future. The “let the dead bury their dead” quote comes from the Bible but Marx’s friends did not, as Jesus had commanded his apostles, abandon their traditional obligations, that is to leave their homes and families and commit themselves to a radically new world. The bourgeois revolutionaries of the late eighteenth century had failed to fully abandon the past for the future. And of course so had the working class by the time Marx died; the revolution that would end history had not happened. We—and Engels—did not leave it to the dead to bury the dead.
In 1955 Marx was reburied in a much more conspicuous site in Highgate. Since then, a growing assemblage of the communist dead has gathered around his new tomb. I understand why you call it a paradox, but in a sense my book suggests quite the opposite: the need to live with the dead transcends any particular belief about who the dead are, or what death is, or whether there is an afterlife.
You are right in a sense. If you had asked someone in the fourteenth century why he wanted to be buried next to a saint he would have told you some story about her holiness being present in the bones even if she was in heaven and how it was important to his salvation because being near the bones connected him with someone who had the ear of God. If you pushed him and asked whether God would let him into heaven even if he had died at sea or if the relics had been stolen he would have said yes, I guess so. If we could ask the great communist historian Eric Hobsbawm why he wanted his ashes, identical to everyone else’s ashes, buried—at great expense—in a large tomb near Marx his answer would have been that he wanted to be with his comrades. But, we could reply, your comrades are gone; there is only mere matter here; wouldn’t a plaque do? No, he would say, I need to be there. And so on. My point is that I suspect we—those who survive and those who while alive contemplate our being eventually among the dead—will always need them and will be forever inventive in how we ask them to work for us.
Shenk: The book mixes wide-ranging but recognizably historical sections with examinations of what you call “the deep time of the dead” that borrow more from anthropology than history. Sometimes, questions about change over time predominate; at other times, the search for universals that cut across the centuries has the upper hand. What led you to combine these approaches? What does this fusion tell us about the uses the dead serve for the living?
Laqueur: The great weight of all human history gives the dead meaning at the most general level. Specific meanings emerge from the sort of historical moments to which you point. So the French Revolutionaries began to cremate some of their important dead to a make an anti-clerical, indeed anti-religious gesture through appropriating Roman republican practice. And the church opposed cremation well into the twentieth century because of a variety of associations beginning in the revolutionary era. So, the significance and care of the dead is a universal that is appropriated in specific contexts for specific purposes more or less urgently. I think there are especially intense moments and exigent spaces for the work of the dead. “Nowhere are the dead more alive than in Spain,” Federico García Lorca said.
Shenk: You write in the preface that when you started researching this book more than thirty years ago its title was “The Meaning of Death in Post-Reformation Britain.” The scope of your inquiry has, obviously, changed since then. How did the project evolve in the years that you worked on it? What kept you returning to this subject?
Laqueur: Let’s be clear: I started researching forty years ago. And the scope has narrowed rather than expanded. I thought I was working on a history of the meaning of death—an impossible if not entirely incoherent undertaking. I could only write the book when I came to focus on the history of the work of the dead, understood as the dead body, as it shaped civilizations, polities, communities, classes, families, and so on. Of course the dead body does its work because of its relationship to the far vaster world of the dead, but I can play off that tension rather than taking on all death and the dead in general. The book still constitutes a vast topic but one in which I could research and write about particular changes in specific places. Once I lit upon Diogenes the Cynic as the voice to be answered the book fell into place.
Shenk: While you were researching this book, you also found time to write two others—a history of sex that runs from antiquity into the twentieth century, and a history of masturbation that is similarly wide ranging. Sex, masturbation, and now death—how does this book fit into the arc of your career?
Laqueur: I think all of my work is about how we give meaning to the body. I think the case of the dead body is more puzzling because the default answer is that it means nothing more than the body of a beast. That has never, except in extremis, been an acceptable answer.
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.
Timothy Shenk is a graduate student in history at Columbia University and a Dissent contributing editor. He is the author of Maurice Dobb: Political Economist.