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

Book of the week: Brace yourself for unusual keepsakes in a study of our attachment to corpses, says Deborah Lutz

November 19, 2015
Portraits of man's and child's corpses
In death: post-mortem photographs show a love for the body as corpse

After Charlotte Brontë died, the servants Martha Brown and Hannah Dawson laid her out and cut off a long tress of hair. Her best friend Ellen Nussey spread evergreen branches on the body and also snipped some curls, which she later fashioned into jewellery. Mementos gleaned from corpses were common in the UK and the US, especially during the 19th century, and when photography became widespread in the 1850s, the beloved dead were sometimes cherished through pictures taken post-mortem. Earlier in the century, Mary Shelley reputedly stored between the leaves of a book of poetry what remained of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley’s heart after his cremation on the beach near where he drowned. Death masks, post-mortem paintings and mourning jewellery with hair flourished during this period, evidence of Thomas Laqueur’s observation, in this monumentally learned book, that, in all ages, the dead matter. His subject, he tells us, is “not grounded in knowledge, science, morality, or metaphysics but rather in deep structures of intuition and feeling”.

Yet, more specifically, why do dead bodies count? After all, sceptics such as Diogenes have thought it adequate to fling a corpse over a wall for animals to consume. For isn’t the cadaver merely a bag of bones, a subject turned object, the loved character fled for good? Why should we care about this rotting thing? Laqueur gives us so many reasons, framed using the disciplines of history, anthropology and philosophy. He asks us to ponder the “poor, naked, inert dead body”, and how, in the West, it has been handled, stolen, dissected, desecrated, represented and revered. Moving through both “deep time” and a focus on late 18th- and 19th-century Britain, he proposes that the presence of the dead has always enchanted the living, no matter one’s faith or lack of it. They make communities; they transform spaces, largely because we, too, will eventually become mere objects. Since we can’t fully realise our own future oblivion, we cast on to corpses our yearning for a post-mortem protean magic: “we believe despite ourselves”, Laqueur offers, speaking as a secularist. Or, in John Berger’s words, “By themselves the living were incomplete.”

This is a book full of stories. We read about desires to possess or be near Karl Marx’s body; Henry Crabb Robinson having a dentist implant a souvenir tooth, found on the Waterloo battlefield, in his mouth; the massive funeral for the radical Henry “Orator” Hunt’s horse, whose bones, later exhumed, were fashioned into keepsakes such as snuff boxes; and Tom Paine’s peripatetic body parts. All serve to narrate the work that flesh performs after the spirit has gone. It can be a gruesome, engrossing delight to dip into these pages. Yet, occasionally, the proliferation of tales, representing thousands of years of history, different countries and cultures (often within a single paragraph), overwhelms serious scholarly intent. The wealth of material (more than 600 pages’ worth) that Laqueur brings to bear on the corpse, and his almost compulsive need to cover all aspects of his topic, can feel exhilarating at times, or, at other times, exhausting. Maybe death won’t slip in and do its grim work, if every possible gap in knowledge is stuffed with words? All books are, more or less, stops against the door to death: one’s own monument without a body underneath it (a cenotaph/-graph?), perhaps with the impossible hope that there will never need to be a body buried under that name.

Yet, for all that, Laqueur’s mastery of this history, and his limpid prose, make this a deeply engaging text. He renders his sentences with gorgeous profundity. One especially moving passage reminds the reader of Vladimir Nabokov’s notion that “our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness”. Laqueur speculates as to why we have so little anxiety about the time “before we existed, when we were nothing, than about what follows the brief moment – our lives – when we were something”. We fear our lives without us, rather than absence before any presence. We don’t mind imagining a world where we had never yet been, but find terrifying a time after we have been and are now gone.

A large portion of this book recounts the lively – and often heartbreaking – history of Western burial customs. The many dust-ups related to the places where radicals, rebels and atheists would lie after death (and their last words) take centre stage: Voltaire, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hardy, suicides, and the unbaptised. The use of churchyard burial grounds slowly shifted to urban cemeteries on the outskirts of major cities, and the power of the clergy to decide where the dead would reside waned with the waxing strength of public health authorities and private commercial interests – those who sold plots in burial grounds such as Père Lachaise. In the old regime of the churchyard, the dead had a visible presence. Bodies made the ground lumpy, with so many packed into small spaces. After the flesh had decayed, bones were often moved to make room for new cadavers. Markers indicating the place of a body were rare. In the new, landscaped cemetery, the ground was levelled flat, and anyone with the money could purchase a piece of personal property, with a gravestone, to rest in perpetuity. In a single cemetery, the dead from many countries, religions, classes and races mingled. The localism of the churchyard – a community representing a single parish over many generations – was largely replaced by the cosmopolitan any‑place of the cemetery.

In one of his most fascinating passages, Laqueur traces the history of smell and the rise of a certain “olfactory vigilance” that made people find the dead smellier than they once did. But he gives many other reasons for the dead moving further away from the living (as it was with the ancient Romans), which he marks as beginning in the 18th century and being mostly completed by 1880, with the Burial Laws Amendment Act.

These types of sweeping arguments – and, especially, what Laqueur calls “deep time” – tend to exclude women. Laqueur shows his awareness, in an endnote, that this is not a history of gender as it relates to death. Fair enough, and it would be churlish to ask for more when his book is replete with insights. Even so, what would such a brilliant historian have been able to do with these marginalised bodies and the work they did or were forced to leave undone? Considering women would have dramatically shifted his key tenets. For instance, the death of Charlotte Brontë, who was buried in a church vault in the 1850s, doesn’t fit into Laqueur’s chronology. Neither do memorial acts practised primarily by women, such as creating hair jewellery and post-mortem photographs, which show a love for the body as corpse, and which intensified during the time period that corpses were, according to Laqueur, being distanced from the living. Missing here is the care women took of the dead body, as those who cleansed and laid it out, who watched and waked it, and shouldered the chief tasks of mourning. Including this hidden history would have brought to Laqueur’s attention Patricia Jalland’s essential work on death in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet this is more of a regret than a criticism since, after all, Laqueur, like us, is a mere mortal.

Deborah Lutz is Thruston B. Morton professor of English, University of Louisville. She is author of Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture (2014) and The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects (2015).

The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains
By Thomas W. Laqueur
Princeton University Press, 736pp, £27.95
ISBN 9780691157788 and 9781400874514 (e-book)
Published 9 November 2015

The author

Author Thomas W. Laqueur“I live in Berkeley with a fearsomely intelligent and always challenging colleague, the historian and dean [of the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science], Carla Hesse,” says Thomas Laqueur.

“We have talked about my book in its many proto–forms for 20 years. She has visited with me many more churchyards, catacombs, monuments and such all over the world than she would have on her own. We live with a beautiful, elegant, ageing Weimaraner – Leo, pronounced in the German way, and named after an elegant and distinguished German sociologist of culture, Leo Lowenthal.”

Laqueur, who is Helen Fawcett professor of history at Berkeley, “was conceived when news of the German defeat at the Battle of the Bulge and with it the definitive end of any hope for Nazi victory reached Istanbul. I think [my parents] felt finally they could think of having children.

“I grew up in the coalfields of West Virginia, where my father was a pathologist. Although there was never any question that we were Jewish, I was sent to Presbyterian Sunday school.” Can he attribute any habits of mind to this upbringing? “I think my close acquaintance with the Bible has been important in my work; as for the legacy of being German Jewish, that is too big a question.”

He recalls being “a studious child, but my education in Beckley, West Virginia was useless and demoralising. In my senior year, my high school English teacher circled the word ‘existentialism’ in one of my essays and wrote in the margin ‘What is this? Did you make it up?’ I wish.

“I was sent to a smart Episcopal clergyman with whom I talked theology; I read Paul Tillich with him. My parents and the many Central European refugees who visited our summer cottage left me in no doubt that in this fallen world, the life of the mind was important if not redemptive.”

In this book’s introduction, Laqueur mentions that although he did not see a corpse until he was an undergraduate, his father’s profession meant that he heard discussion of death, and saw body parts, at an early age. 

“I never had any fear of the body in real life, although blood and gore in films did and does terrify me. I think that my father didn’t take me to autopsies [until I was older] less to save me from exposure to the dead, but more because there were other people around and it was not appropriate to drag along his young son. Mornings in the lab where he prepared slides from slices of organs were quiet. Just the two of us.”

As an undergraduate at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Laqueur says, “I would not have thought of myself as ambitious; mostly scared about not being smart enough. But in retrospect I think I probably was intellectually ambitious. Swarthmore was the sort of place that made the life of the mind seem of the greatest importance. Our teachers took us very seriously. I was not solitary. I directed and acted in plays and had lots of friends. I met my best friend, the philosopher Alexander Nehamas, there, when he was in a student-written play I directed.”

Prior to The Work of the Dead, which famously has been many years in the making, Laqueur published a number of other books, including Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. Would it be fair to say that it’s easier – or at least faster – to write about le petit mort than the big one?

“I didn’t have a publisher [for this new book] until near the end, but I dwelled in the slough of despond for decades, thinking I had a subject but never quite able to grasp it,” confesses Laqueur.

“And yes, it is easier to write about the petit mort. It is more comprehensible, not only because pleasure is far easier to contemplate than extinction, but because it brings together in one moment our bodies as some we feel intensely and as something material. The thing about the dead and grand mort is that they are self evidently just material and yet we, as a species, have never been able to live with this fact. Death and the dead are nothing, and yet they are a great deal. Petit mort, great as it is, is not quite le grand mort.”

Of his new book, he adds, “It is my life’s work and I am happy that it is.” 

Laqueur has been in post at Berkeley since 1973. Was he ever tempted to move elsewhere? Does he believe that the option to remain at one institution for a whole career, or indeed to have tenure, will end with his generation? 

“I was tempted to move elsewhere at a time of personal crisis, but am glad I resisted,” he says. “I cannot imagine my life or my book without the students, friends, and intellectual community I have and still have at Berkeley. I wake up every day grateful and in awe of my good fortune that I teach and work at a great public university in a beautiful place. I hope tenure does not disappear and that the restlessness of modern elite academia will abate.” 

Is he more afraid of death now than he was as a child or a teenager?

“I know so much more about dying now than I did 20 or 40 years ago; less because of my book than because of my medical studies and my teaching a course on death and dying with a palliative care physician. What I know is frightening, but I am assured by friends that they will ease my end. My parents’ deaths and those of friends have made me not so much afraid of dying as always more aware of mortality, of limits, of an end. I have since I was a child thought about death; I think more now about the sadness of finitude. I hope to die as David Hume did, or for that matter as my mother did, listening to Beethoven’s Missa Soleminis

What gives him hope?

“Many things: my friends; the optimism and youth of my students; the beauty of my world. When I am frightened, I think of the letters my parents wrote after 1933 and during the war. Maybe it is stupid to take comfort from the fact that bad as things are today, they are not as bad as they were then. But I do. I am part of the most fortunate generation in world history. I know that people in the past have felt that about their times on earth; I hope that more and more people can justifiably feel the same about their lives in the future.”

Karen Shook


Print headline: Ashes to ashes, braids to brooches

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Reader's comments (1)

I think our attachment to, or fascination with, the physical remains of deceased loved ones is on a continuum with our attachment to, or fascination with, other kinds of physical relics. People can have passionate attachments to objects that used to belong to loved ones, even if they are identical to objects that did not belong to the person in question. "That typewriter was my father's!" people will say. And they'll be devastated if one substitutes an identical object for the original–if they learn that has happened. I find this absolutely fascinating. I am still trying to work out the metaphysics of it, though.


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