The Unhaunted Graveyard

Review: Thomas W. Laqueur, ‘The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains’

Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery / AP
January 2, 2016

Back in the first century B.C., Lucretius wrote a long philosophical poem intended to free his readers from fear of death, and the gods, and all the superstitious stuff that classical philosophers were supposed to rise above. Or, at least, all the superstitious stuff that Epicurean philosophers were supposed to rise above, for Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus in both physics and ethics, and he wanted to show that the scientific nature of the world frees us from fear and thus allows to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, just the way Epicurus supposed.

De Rerum Natura, "On the Nature of Things," Lucretius’ work was called, and for all its length, many scholars believe the manuscript was left unfinished, for it ends on a curious note. Lucretius’ talk of science—really bad science, even for the time—leads him in the last book to discuss weather, which leads him to pestilence, which leads him at last to mention Athens during the siege of the Peloponnesian war, when bodies lay unburied in the street and the social order collapsed.

Lucretius probably broke off his manuscript there for some personal or poetical reason, but another possibility does exist: The Roman follower of Epicurus may have abandoned the poem simply because his philosophy failed him at that point. Why should social collapse be signaled and caused by mistreatment of the dead? Why, indeed, unless there is something to all that old superstitious stuff about gods and death and the metaphysical significance of human mortality?

In a compulsively readable book called The Work of the Dead, the Berkeley history professor Thomas W. Laqueur takes as interlocutor not Lucretius so much as the earlier Greek cynic Diogenes—the man who said that, after his death, he wanted his body thrown over the city wall to be eaten by wild animals. And Diogenes was absolutely right, Laqueur argues: As far as science goes, the dead human body is just one more bit of rotting meat.

But Diogenes was also completely wrong, in existential terms, for we cannot find in history an example of a coherent culture that systematically mistreated its own corpses. "We live with the dead because we, as a species, live with the dead," Laqueur writes. And even by the end of his long, careful book, he can find no better answer than that circular explanation: We do it because we do it. "The charisma of the dead . . . exists in our age as in other ages," because death has never successfully been disenchanted—not by ancient philosophers and not by modern science.

The Work of the Dead concentrates its historical study on Europe over the past two centuries, focusing in particular on the transition of burial practice from parish churchyards to public cemeteries. "The churchyard was and looked to be a place for remembering a bounded community of the dead," Laqueur insists, "rather than a place for individual commemoration."

In the late 1700s, however, the public cemetery began to appear, for several reasons. The Protestant dismissal of the idea of Purgatory made remembrance of the community of the dead less pressing, even while municipal reformers declared churchyards a public-health hazard. The reformers exaggerated their case, in Laqueur’s view, but the stench of a churchyard—with its turned-over bones and loosely buried corpses—was something the new age was not willing to endure, just as modernity tried to sweep out of sight nearly all the unpleasantness of medieval life.

For that matter, churchyards announced that death was an inherently religious event. The new public cemeteries could certainly accommodate religion, but they were in their essence irreligious spaces. "To some degree," Laqueur notes, "this is about the rise of negative liberty: the right to a grave in a neutral civic space irrespective of one’s beliefs or lack of beliefs, and the right to a choice in rituals of burial."

And even more to a modern point, cemeteries provided a new and different focus: not the community of the faceless dead but the individuality of the particular corpse. Thus, Laqueur argues, we see the rise of gravestones and monuments, dedicated to modernity’s "new gods of memory and history: secular gods." Even the (relative) rise of cremation in the West simply replaced the corpse with its ashes, treated to many of the same funeral practices and depth of respect.

Any writing that mentions the concept of enchantment follows in the wake of Max Weber and his early 20th-century account of the modern age as defined by its process of disenchanting human experience—stripping everything of the old richness and mysticism of traditional society. From scientific laboratories to nation-state bureaucracies, from Enlightenment philosophy to Protestant theology, a set of "elective affinities" converged in modernity to demythologize and denature the world. And while much good came of it all, much bad came, too, as the great emptying out of metaphysical meaning left us with no thick accounts of why we live and what existence means.

For the last hundred years, sociology has been trying to solve the problem that Weber defined for it. And not just sociology. Philosophy, theology, painting, literature: Every intellectual endeavor in the West has been attempting to rediscover the thickness of enchantment.

Thomas Laqueur is hardly alone in looking to the dead for a solution. Even the deconstructionists admitted that mortality is the one human fact that cannot be deconstructed. But Laqueur’s attempt to claim death as modernity’s one never-disenchanted thing—and thus as the rock on which to stand in the shifting sands of modern meaninglessness—proves in the end less helpful than it first promised.

We need, Laqueur writes, "to construe the dead" as "social beings, as creatures who need to be eased out of this world and settled safely into the next and into memory." And so we should, even if it means something of a turn back to the medieval churchyard from the modern cemetery. For that matter, Laqueur’s circular explanation—we treat the dead with reverence because we have always treated the dead with reverence—may be answer to Diogenes the Cynic, as anti-social as any thinker who has ever lived.

It is not, however, an answer to the puzzle of Lucretius. Reverential treatment of the dead is the baseline of civilization. A culture that cannot care for its own dead is not a culture. A government that cannot maintain its cemeteries has failed as a government. And the people who walk away from corpses have ceased to be human beings.

Thomas W. Laqueur knows this is true, just as, I think, Lucretius discovered it to be true. But The Work of the Dead has no explanation for why it is true, apart from a kind of cultural wink and nod, a pretense that allows us to ignore the truth we all know about death’s emptiness. A lot of work "goes into creating ‘a magic we can believe in,’" Laqueur admits, but that admission defeats his claim that death is our one remaining enchantment—the one thing still left with richness and mystical importance. Perhaps we give death meaning, but only in our good modern sense that humans are the source of all meaning, which leaves death just another thing disenchanted from all it once meant.

As a work of sociological history, The Work of the Dead is a marvelous volume: exact in its scholarship, but light and pleasant in its prose. As a work of philosophy, however—or theology, or literature, or any serious intellectual endeavor at this stage of late modern times—The Work of the Dead is a disappointment.

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