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The Work of the Dead

Thomas Laqueur

Public opinion kept the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston bomber, out of scores of cemeteries before a place was found in a small private burial ground.

The medieval church developed an elaborate theology to explain why the bodies of saints needed special treatment, and why it was beneficial to be buried close to them.

In 1750, all British graves would be orientated towards Jerusalem, but after 1900 they were more likely to be oriented toward a local view.


Humans have looked after their dead since time immemorial, and you argue that’s the border between nature and culture – it’s key to what makes us human.

Caring for the dead is a mark of our living in time, something I think animals do not do. We have a past – that is, we come from something; we have a present that we know ends in our own deaths; and we imagine a future in which our progeny live and we live in them. The dead among the living represent this temporal aspect of our existence; their presence, as I say, represents the liminal moment of our emergence into culture. Recovering bodies from catastrophes is part of that care. In this country we had a coal-mining disaster a few years ago at Pike River, and it remains a source of family and national grief that the 29 bodies have not been brought out.

I think we have always wanted an answer to the question “where are the dead?” The body is an answer: hic jacet – “here lies”, a gravestone announces. So strong is this feeling that in the 18th century we know sailors noted the co-ordinates of the place where a body had been buried at sea. The 1986 Challenger disaster, in which the bodies of astronauts were blown into space in front of a large television audience, offers another example: great and ultimately successful efforts were made to recover the bodies and begin to heal the national grief. We need our dead among us.

Our attitudes to death have changed hugely. One example is that we used to be buried in fields, then churchyards, then park-like cemeteries. What does this say about death and society? How have the poor been treated by comparison?

The dead are never just tossed about. When buried in fields, they marked borders or sacred copses or some other landmark; when they came to be gathered in churchyards, they constituted the congregation of the Christian dead – a mirror in time of the congregation of the living; in cemeteries they formed a much more cosmopolitan world of the dead – people of all sorts together in death who might not have spoken to each other in life. As for the poor, they were present in churchyards, evident in the undulating ground. Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, the most recited English poem of the 19th century, makes the point.

Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

Only in the cemetery did the poor and dispossessed become largely invisible, which helps explain why burial societies, founded to avoid a pauper funeral – an ignominious journey to an unmarked grave – became so important in the 19th century.

Naming is vital, too, with memorial parks for wars and the Holocaust and terrorism attacks, and tombs for unknown soldiers. Why?

The number of names on tombstones declined precipitously in the early Middle Ages: the vast majority of graves, even the graves of important people, were anonymous. The dead were buried as members of a community. It was with the recovery of classical ideals in the Renaissance that names in tombs began to become more important again, but only in elite circles. The American Civil War was a real turning point in the history of the names of the ordinary dead. Gettysburg, where thousands of tombstones bore the names of the soldiers who had died defending the Republic, was the first national cemetery since the Battle of Marathon, where the names of Athenian soldiers who died defeating Persia, were engraved on steles. But more importantly, by the late 19th century, family members demanded to know what had become of their dead loved ones. A vast emotional infrastructure – letters, poems, newspaper accounts, novels – had bound the dead to the living and made anonymous, hidden burial unbearable.

The survivors of World War I built the first great naming memorials, lists on stone that expressed individual mourning and the needs of the community – local, national, imperial. The largest of these is the one at Thiepval in the Somme with the names of more than 70,000 men whose bodies could not be identified or were lost entirely. The American Vietnam Memorial is a direct descendant. Lists of the names are a way of recuperating the dead, of bringing them back and keeping them among us.

Western societies didn’t burn bodies for centuries before crematoria were developed in the late 19th century. Why the change?

Cremation re-entered the Western world as an anticlerical gesture and as a way of connecting with classical republican ideals. With the defeat of the revolution, it became illegal and was re-invented in a new form by radical Italian anticlerical material doctors. They decided to use high-technology steel-making furnaces to burn the dead, a way of showing that bodies were just matter and could be dealt with as such. Cremation became an emblem of progressive views. Reform Jews in the early 20th century, for example, adopted it in disproportionate numbers to show their affiliation with modernity.

You wonder also if in times of higher infant mortality parents had to care less so as to better cope with the grief. Did you come to a conclusion on this?

I did not. We know from contemporary evidence that today in societies with very high infant mortality there is “death without weeping”, as the anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes writes. We know that very young infants in the past were buried with little or no ceremony. And we also know that by some age children became as dear to parents in the past as they are in the present. All this said, it is very hard to assess the grief of others, and all the more so in the distant past.

Do you think it is inevitable we’ll get near-universal rights to die with dignity in the West?

In the short run, yes, but in the long, no. My guess is that, to the contrary, we will demand ever more efforts be made to help us live forever.

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