A Cultural History of Mortal Remains

The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains
Thomas W. Laqueur
Princeton University Press  736pp  £27.95

Do the dead matter? This is the central question in this meticulously researched, all-encompassing exploration of our mortal remains. At its heart is Diogenes’ suggestion that his body should be thrown to the beasts after his death. Since his body would be of no use to him, it is irrelevant to him what happens afterwards. If it does not matter what we do with our dead once life has ceased, then why do we take so much care over corpses? 

In this intimate and often very personal reflection, Laqueur asserts that we need our rituals to serve the dead to smooth over the rent that is caused in the passing of those we love. The dead make us face our own death, which both horrifies us and separates us. Most profoundly, he says: ‘It matters because we cannot bear to live at the borders of our mortality.’ 

Covering the western world from the enlightenment to the current day, but delving into ‘deep time’, Laqueur takes an anthological perspective to show how the caring for our corpses is what defines us as civilised. An array of complicated practices help us come to terms with death and give it meaning: funerary meals, death masks, headstones and memorials. But our methods of disposal of the dead have changed over time, reflecting our shifting attitudes towards them. Burials would take place in medieval churchyards (implying a closeness to God); then in the 19th century celebration of the dead in huge landscaped crematories (with bodies moved to the outskirts of town); then to the early 20th-century crematoria, with their chimneys hidden among the skyline of factories (hygienic, total annihilation of the dead). 

Burial near relics of bones might save a dead person from purgatory or help them in the afterlife. The bones of the ‘special dead’, such as saints, were believed to be imbibed with miraculous powers and thus worshipped. Against such idolatry, Calvinistic reformers smashed shrines and scattered bones: on one occasion they were proved right when the supposed bones of St Anthony were found to be a stag’s penis. In the 20th century the incessant naming of the dead became a notable obsession – our need to commemorate in great lists and memorials – the war dead, those who died of AIDS, those who died in the Holocaust. 

This thought-provoking tome, erudite and finely-written, seemingly encapsulates all past uttering on the dead in our fleetingly short lives. It is also about our own mortality. As Vladimir Nabokov said, ‘our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness’. We remember our beloved dead as we cannot bear their loss. But we  remember our dead as we also cannot bear to be forgotten.

Julie Peakman’s most recent book is Peg Plunkett: Memoirs of a Whore (Quercus, 2015). She also edited Sexual Perversions, 1670-1890 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

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