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The Greek philosopher Diogenes said that when he died his body should be tossed over the city walls for beasts to scavenge. Why should he or anyone else care what became of his corpse? In The Work of the Dead, acclaimed cultural historian Thomas Laqueur examines why humanity has universally rejected Diogenes’s argument. No culture has been indifferent to mortal remains. Ev The Greek philosopher Diogenes said that when he died his body should be tossed over the city walls for beasts to scavenge. Why should he or anyone else care what became of his corpse? In The Work of the Dead, acclaimed cultural historian Thomas Laqueur examines why humanity has universally rejected Diogenes’s argument. No culture has been indifferent to mortal remains. Even in our supposedly disenchanted scientific age, the dead body still matters—for individuals, communities, and nations. A remarkably ambitious history, The Work of the Dead offers a compelling and richly detailed account of how and why the living have cared for the dead, from antiquity to the twentieth century. The book draws on a vast range of sources—from mortuary archaeology, medical tracts, letters, songs, poems, and novels to painting and landscapes in order to recover the work that the dead do for the living: making human communities that connect the past and the future. Laqueur shows how the churchyard became the dominant resting place of the dead during the Middle Ages and why the cemetery largely supplanted it during the modern period. He traces how and why since the nineteenth century we have come to gather the names of the dead on great lists and memorials and why being buried without a name has become so disturbing. And finally, he tells how modern cremation, begun as a fantasy of stripping death of its history, ultimately failed—and how even the ashes of the victims of the Holocaust have been preserved in culture. A fascinating chronicle of how we shape the dead and are in turn shaped by them, this is a landmark work of cultural history.


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The Greek philosopher Diogenes said that when he died his body should be tossed over the city walls for beasts to scavenge. Why should he or anyone else care what became of his corpse? In The Work of the Dead, acclaimed cultural historian Thomas Laqueur examines why humanity has universally rejected Diogenes’s argument. No culture has been indifferent to mortal remains. Ev The Greek philosopher Diogenes said that when he died his body should be tossed over the city walls for beasts to scavenge. Why should he or anyone else care what became of his corpse? In The Work of the Dead, acclaimed cultural historian Thomas Laqueur examines why humanity has universally rejected Diogenes’s argument. No culture has been indifferent to mortal remains. Even in our supposedly disenchanted scientific age, the dead body still matters—for individuals, communities, and nations. A remarkably ambitious history, The Work of the Dead offers a compelling and richly detailed account of how and why the living have cared for the dead, from antiquity to the twentieth century. The book draws on a vast range of sources—from mortuary archaeology, medical tracts, letters, songs, poems, and novels to painting and landscapes in order to recover the work that the dead do for the living: making human communities that connect the past and the future. Laqueur shows how the churchyard became the dominant resting place of the dead during the Middle Ages and why the cemetery largely supplanted it during the modern period. He traces how and why since the nineteenth century we have come to gather the names of the dead on great lists and memorials and why being buried without a name has become so disturbing. And finally, he tells how modern cremation, begun as a fantasy of stripping death of its history, ultimately failed—and how even the ashes of the victims of the Holocaust have been preserved in culture. A fascinating chronicle of how we shape the dead and are in turn shaped by them, this is a landmark work of cultural history.

30 review for The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains

  1. 5 out of 5

    Diogenes

    "Billions and billions of the dead--at least 90 percent and probably nearer to 95 percent of all who ever died--have disappeared without leaving a name behind" (p. 431). We could, with every footfall, be walking over the dust of the dead. Argh, I finally finished this lumbering behemoth of a book. While being a true work of scholarship, in the most boring sense of the term, Laqueuer's Herculean effort of tackling the mightiest of elephants in the room of "Western" society (i.e., Death, with a cap "Billions and billions of the dead--at least 90 percent and probably nearer to 95 percent of all who ever died--have disappeared without leaving a name behind" (p. 431). We could, with every footfall, be walking over the dust of the dead. Argh, I finally finished this lumbering behemoth of a book. While being a true work of scholarship, in the most boring sense of the term, Laqueuer's Herculean effort of tackling the mightiest of elephants in the room of "Western" society (i.e., Death, with a capital D), is noble, necessary, and terribly elucidating for the layperson, the college student, and the intellectually and existentially curious. However, this book is also a slow grind to read, at least for me. While the main theme is to focus on the idea of, treatment of, Death and the Dead, post-Enlightenment, with a narrowed focus on the U.K. (and later in the "necronominalism" of the U.S.), religiously, philosophically, culturally, politically, and socially, it takes Laqueur some 180 pages to even get to Martin Luther, Voltaire, and David Hume. Time after time, it seems, this work is riddled with repetitious thoughts and directed along a serpentine course that gets madly muddled. Chapters have introductory pages, sections have introductions paragraphs-long, and subsections often have some reflective introduction with sprinkled signposts letting the reader know where he or she stands on this journey. The use of endnotes over footnotes, also (to me) is tough since I like footnotes (I mean, come on, even Max Brooks used them expertly in fiction) and they are much cited in the text here. One glaring oversight I found was Socrates being cited for what Plato wrote. Such a missed editing issue automatically makes me wonder what other tiny missteps hide within the pages. Please don't get me wrong. This is a profound work of scholarship that must have taken an incredible amount of time to research and write. Blending history on all its layers with anthropology, cultural psychology, etymology, necrogeography, etc. is nothing short of tough. At 550 lead-dense pages, with almost 80 pages of endnotes, such an undertaking is worthy of accolades; yet, I wonder if this subject couldn't be more easily construed for readers outside lofty academic circles (for the record, I have two Master's degrees with a long-ago undergrad minor in Philosophy: ignorant I am not). With 180 pages of appetizers expended trying to build up to the main course, there seems a sadly missed opportunity to tie Greco-Roman, pre-Christian Jewish, and pre-Islam Arab practices/belief systems/mindsets of death, the dying, and the dead together, as they all contribute to the construction of institutional Christian thought, never mind the romantic idolatry and pervasive iconography of such themes transforming throughout history. What I do love is using my hero-god Diogenes as the keystone to this entire book. No greater person could fill the Cynic's dirty, unshod, philosophical feet regarding this topic. Perhaps it's just the author's writing style. If so, such a style will probably never reach a wide audience, and maybe that's just fine, but I wish the issues of death and dying were more pronounced in culture. That is not a macabre statement at all. Coming from a Buddhist perspective, death is inevitable and should not be feared. We live, we die. Reading this history of perception and practice gifted me with greater clarity into how the individual mindset, swamped by external and historical forces, shapes one's worldview concerning death and dying. By "worldview" I mean that far beyond family, community, and nation. This is supreme existentialism. Wheeling galaxies, endless expanses of lifeless space, dark matter and multiverses, stars going nova and black holes yawning into presumed oblivion, and while the insects of mankind writhe, suffer, devour, and breed on this little speck of warm rock blessed with oxygen and water, wobbling around a sun. Accept death with peace, and thrive with life. The truly ironic and humorous thing is that in the "Western" world, death is ever-present. Any TV show, film, and book deals with it on some level, fine art often tackles it directly and my beloved metal music also delves deep into the subject matter explicitly, and yet the mostly insular societies of the "West" cower with chronophobia, the fear of dying, ignorant of deep time, narcissistic and idolatrous, never mind the usurpation of Memorial Day by neoliberal capitalism. Look at the last month+ of "worshipping" the man formally known as some goofy symbol, formally known as "Prince," nearly deified after death because he sang pop songs. Will the more magnanimous persona of Muhammad Ali unseat Prince from the populist spotlight of the media-driven sheeple? Time will tell; history will record. From zombie and vampire shows to the ephemeral news-cycle "tragedy" of the moment, death is forever ever-present, danced around, deflected onto others, personified by classism (how many people perished while idiots pondered Prince), feared but never really embraced, played with by power (i.e., the unceremonious disposal of Osama bin Laden, the "heroic" fratricidal death of Pat Tillman), etc., etc. Laqueur covers all of this as it evolved in Europe (and the U.S.), and it is this evolution that is truly mesmerizing. "The disembodied names of the dead are thus the strangest of that strange category of noun, the proper name, because they are shadows of shadows: more insubstantial than ghosts" (p. 366). What does it mean to revere Prince, or Ghandi, or Shakespeare, or Muhammad, or Achilles? Is this post a form of memorial to my virtual identity as a reader and critic, or will it be lost in the endless detritus of online postings, or burned away when Goodreads becomes unprofitable to the mighty giant Amazon? We are all mulch for trees, ultimately, and as a follower of Diogenes, that sits just fine because in the end a person is a corpse who moves on to whatever awaits us on the other side of life. For me, a deeper evolutionary excavation is even more profound, such as archeologists and cultural anthropologists currently mired in debate about the origins of early humankind's conscious practice of "burial," as recent finds in South Africa allude to with greater poignancy. When did we, as socially grouped, tool-using monkey-people (some 70 million years ago) decide we didn't like seeing our fallen brethren being ripped apart by other predators and carrion-eaters, and how did such belief systems grow into a multi-billion-dollar funerary industry fueled by spiritual spectacle? When did the belief of fallen-soldiers-as-fodder transform into fallen-soldiers-as-public-and-political-capital? I believe the dead body is a mirror to mortality, and a gateway to the cataclysmic Unknown that has ensorcelled conscious humanoids since the spark of awakening ignited the imagination, grunting and pointing to the moving pinpricks of starlight scintillating in the night sky. Death finds us all; it is an unglamorous, typically painful (unless one is blessed with sedatives), and an incredibly lonely experience, and you will one day experience it fully. To embrace the philosophy and spirituality of death is to live life more fully, more purposefully, more cognizant that each day counts for something much greater than ourselves. Raise your children well, help strangers in need, support those dealing with strife, empathize with those of different cultures and creeds, and protect the planet for the ecosystems of future generations that inevitably inherit our greed-driven, myopic disasters-in-the-making. As Nabokov wrote, "Our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness." And, As Horace exclaimed long ago, "No dirges for my fancied death; No weak lament, no mournful stave; All clamorous grief were waste of breath, And vain the tribute of a grave." When my body hits the cold floor for the final time, the Neptune Society will escort my ashes to the sea, and into oblivion I go peacefully, a shadow of a shadow cut away by the sun. *** Extra resources: https://aeon.co/essays/does-evolution... http://www.scientificamerican.com/art... https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=AbXXMgi... https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=YLYb1Vd...

  2. 5 out of 5

    LeeAnn Heringer

    It's a huge book that begins with the idea that humans passed an important milestone for civilization when we begin to treat our dead compassionately, goes on to cover the history of the churchyard burial, the history of the cemetery, the history of cremation, and then circles back around to the modern "right-to-die". There's so much here to chew on and think deeply. Big book, big scope, interesting ideas. If I had a complaint it would be that the writing is not as crisp as you could hope, the au It's a huge book that begins with the idea that humans passed an important milestone for civilization when we begin to treat our dead compassionately, goes on to cover the history of the churchyard burial, the history of the cemetery, the history of cremation, and then circles back around to the modern "right-to-die". There's so much here to chew on and think deeply. Big book, big scope, interesting ideas. If I had a complaint it would be that the writing is not as crisp as you could hope, the author circles an idea, taking a while to get to his point and making sure that he gives you several examples of what he's talking about. The author really chases his subject to ground. It's also true that the author, being British, is mostly interested in the British history of the dead. I think there's some interesting cross-cultural references that are missing by not expanding the scope of the history a little -- but as the author says (using a story from antiquity) each culture feels like they have the only logical, proper customs and everyone else are barbarians. It's a little like being trapped in a house on a rainy night with an old person who's warmed up to his subject and is determined to tell you everything he knows. It was well worth the read, but settle in because it's going to take a while to get through it.

  3. 5 out of 5

    BHodges

    A fascinating if occasionally meandering history of the kind of cultural work dead human bodies do. That is, the author asks: what does the way we treat dead bodies tell us about our values, hopes, fears, desires, priorities, etc.? He first traces the shift in burial practices from the churchyard to the more pluralist cemetery, then discusses what we do with the names of the dead, especially in connection with the dead of war, and he concludes with the modern rise of cremation and its place in c A fascinating if occasionally meandering history of the kind of cultural work dead human bodies do. That is, the author asks: what does the way we treat dead bodies tell us about our values, hopes, fears, desires, priorities, etc.? He first traces the shift in burial practices from the churchyard to the more pluralist cemetery, then discusses what we do with the names of the dead, especially in connection with the dead of war, and he concludes with the modern rise of cremation and its place in culture since the nineteenth century. I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though it was a real slow read. (As an aside, keep in mind it focuses almost entirely on Britain. I was also surprised he didn't speak at all to the culture of embalming.)

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kristine

    The Work of the Dead by Thomas W. Laqueur is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in early October as a more academic, anthropological counterpart to Mary Roach's Stiff. The Work of the Dead covers the who, where and when of burial, final religious rites, corpse disposal, and recognition of the dead in Europe and the Meditteranean. Laqueur's narrative is studied, knowledgeable, and witty without veering toward dark humor and sardonics.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sally

    Heavy. Literally so heavy I had to kind of rest it on something. Also heavy because very, very dense but interesting and borderline academic reading.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Randolph

    Fascinating cultural history in the Western Hemisphere of the treatment and attitude towards mortal remains that suffers from a lack of direction. It reads more like a collection of essays about the cultural attitudes towards stiffs but it is not clear what begets what. Do the dead influence culture or does culture, science, theology, define how we treat mortal remains? Probably both, to be fair to the author. Still literary and compelling in both scope and content. Not an easy read but worth th Fascinating cultural history in the Western Hemisphere of the treatment and attitude towards mortal remains that suffers from a lack of direction. It reads more like a collection of essays about the cultural attitudes towards stiffs but it is not clear what begets what. Do the dead influence culture or does culture, science, theology, define how we treat mortal remains? Probably both, to be fair to the author. Still literary and compelling in both scope and content. Not an easy read but worth the effort.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jerrod

    This tome leaves no (tomb)stone unturned when it comes to burial practices in western Europe (especially Britain). This was very much a book to skim until you find the parts that interest you (much more of a reference book than most other academic books). I did enjoy it for the most part. There is more economics (in the broad sense) than I expected, especially when it comes to the Church of England's near monopoly on burials. Here are a few things I hope to remember from it: - differential pricin This tome leaves no (tomb)stone unturned when it comes to burial practices in western Europe (especially Britain). This was very much a book to skim until you find the parts that interest you (much more of a reference book than most other academic books). I did enjoy it for the most part. There is more economics (in the broad sense) than I expected, especially when it comes to the Church of England's near monopoly on burials. Here are a few things I hope to remember from it: - differential pricing for burying in different types of coffins (lead coffins last longer than wood ones) - clashes with Church of England clergy about who can be buried and what kinds of services would be performed led to quite a bit of animosity towards the clergy, leading to the eventual decline in the authority of the church over who gets buried and leading to the rise in cemeteries - regular scraping/leveling of churchyards to accommodate new decedents (i.e. residency in churchyards was not permanent) - increase in naming and headstones after late 18th century - one of the justifications for cremation in the late 19th century: people can contribute from beyond the grave to the national income; ash is worth 42 pounds sterling per ton I was a little disappointed when I read in the introduction that the author would not be including much about burial practices outside western Europe, and I was more disappointed when I finished and the extent of the omission was revealed. If this were billed as just a book about burial practices in western Europe, then that would have been fine, but the author makes the grand claim that the dead interact with society to "make" culture (i.e., how we interact with the dead forms our culture as much as culture defines how we interact with the dead). I don't quite buy the author's theory, but if you are going to make grand claims, you'll need more than a thin slice of history from half of a continent to provide grounds for making those claims. And in pursuit of evidence for the author's theory, I don't think he gave enough space to the effects of the economic changes and increasing urbanization would have on funerary practices. Thus far, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute has a more detailed (and more satisfying account) of the market for cadavers in late 1700s and early 1800s England (with a dose of information on funerary practices and people's attitudes toward the dead).

  8. 5 out of 5

    K.

    The Work of the Dead is a particularly interesting (and yes, morbid) read. This is because of the many aspects that are brought in order to examine the cultural history in how society has treated the remains of the departed. It primarily focuses on the 18th century forwards, especially in Europe. There were a few interesting historical gems, particularly with the right to burial. (view spoiler)[There would be bodies that would be refused this right due to politics and religious differences -- on The Work of the Dead is a particularly interesting (and yes, morbid) read. This is because of the many aspects that are brought in order to examine the cultural history in how society has treated the remains of the departed. It primarily focuses on the 18th century forwards, especially in Europe. There were a few interesting historical gems, particularly with the right to burial. (view spoiler)[There would be bodies that would be refused this right due to politics and religious differences -- one would be refused to the fact they weren't "regularly baptized", but the reason was primarily because the family were known opponents of that Church. Another would be incorrect in death causes: a man had died due to a sabre wound to the head yet classified as "death due to natural causes" (hide spoiler)] . More so, as Laqueur argues: "The history of the work of the dead is a history of how they dwell in us -- individually and communally. It is a history of how we imagine them to be, how they give meaning to our lives, how they structure public spaces, politics, and time."

  9. 5 out of 5

    M Christopher

    This could have been a really interesting 250-page book. Instead, it's 570 pages of prolix, repetitive, pedantic self-indulgence. Are there no good editors in the book business any more?

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jason

    Useful, not so much for the author's interpretations, but simply for the sheer amount of information

  11. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Davis

    A cultural history of dead and their names. At times fascinating, but often hard going too. As some earlier reviewers noted, it could be much more readable if edited to remove all the repetitions and many blind alleys the autor indulges in getting into. Worth reading if you interested about this cultural phenomenon and its changes over the ages. {Notes:} Marx wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Epicurus, who offers the most influential argument for death as a complete and permanent annihilation. (At p A cultural history of dead and their names. At times fascinating, but often hard going too. As some earlier reviewers noted, it could be much more readable if edited to remove all the repetitions and many blind alleys the autor indulges in getting into. Worth reading if you interested about this cultural phenomenon and its changes over the ages. {Notes:} Marx wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Epicurus, who offers the most influential argument for death as a complete and permanent annihilation. (At page 20). In his introduction Laqueur mentions a case about Karl Marx's grave at Highgate. It is surrounded by a number of socialist/communist thinkers and activists. As they all were strict materialists, it is strange that they considered it important to be buried close to their leader. Laqueur interprets this as the result of their inability to recognise that what has befallen others will befall us - complete oblivion. (At page 21). Socrates, just before he takes the poison, he tries to make his student Crito understand that he would not be "laying out, or carrying out or burying Socrates", because Socrates would no longer be there (At page36). Traditionally, the graves were placed in east-west axis with deceased facing south. It was believed that on the Judgement Day, Christ will come from Jerusalem and by facing south the resurrected dead will be able to welcome his coming. Up till 19th century there were no public cemeteries and people were buried in or around their local churches. Due to space restrictions new burials were at the sites that already had been used before. The local priest and community were in charge of costs and allocations. Laqueur relates a story of Joseph Haydn's body after it had been buried in Vienna in 1809. His employer, Prine Esterhazy, wanted Haydn buried in his estate in Eisenstadt. He ordered his exhumation and it was found that Haydn's head was missing. The accountant of the Prince - Karl Rosenbaum and Johann Peter, the governor of the local prison were suspected. The Prince offered to pay for the head. The pair gave him two. The first one was rejected as belonged to a young man. The second was accepted. When Rosenbaum died he left the Haydn's head to Peter. When he died the head was returned to the Society of the Friends of Music. In 1932 the Society agreed to return the head, but the Vienna city fathers refused it. Finally, in 1954 the Haydn's body was made whole. Demographers calculate that between 82 and 108 billion people have been born since beginning of humankind. The LDS estimates that 26 billion people were born between 1500 and 2010, eight billion documented. They indexed 3.3 billion names.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Gina Terada

    I had hoped that this would be a wider focus on the cultural uses of the dead across the globe and human history and prehistory. That is not the case and would’ve probably resulted in an even more massive tome. While I do find annoying that the argument for cultural significance relies almost entirely upon the history of the dead in relation to the church in Europe I still find this book compelling. My complaint is a more general one at the academic discipline of History as really meaning Europe I had hoped that this would be a wider focus on the cultural uses of the dead across the globe and human history and prehistory. That is not the case and would’ve probably resulted in an even more massive tome. While I do find annoying that the argument for cultural significance relies almost entirely upon the history of the dead in relation to the church in Europe I still find this book compelling. My complaint is a more general one at the academic discipline of History as really meaning European History. That aside, the later chapters on the modern age of names, monuments, the Holocaust and cremation were all a really interesting and compelling tale of how we think about the dead in the modern era.

  13. 4 out of 5

    VonLeonhardt

    This book is phenomenal, but very dense to read. It also, especially towards the beginning, repeats a bit. I think this text is worth reading for anyone interested, but you will want to pace yourself and possibly take notes.

  14. 4 out of 5

    T. Rhodes

    This book is so amazing I purchased it. Dense and satisfactory.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    In the twenty-first century, we press not just the dead but also the dying into cultural service of the living. At stake in our conflicting beliefs about proper and dignified care of the bodies of the dying is unresolved ambivalence about the power of our technology and the extent of our alienation from nature.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Steve Cozza

  17. 4 out of 5

    Dyrgripen

  18. 5 out of 5

    James

  19. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  20. 5 out of 5

    Duriel

  21. 5 out of 5

    Christopher Buchanan

  22. 4 out of 5

    Amy

  23. 5 out of 5

    Veronica Rodriguez

  24. 5 out of 5

    Stephan

  25. 5 out of 5

    Krude

  26. 4 out of 5

    David

  27. 4 out of 5

    Nikki

  28. 4 out of 5

    Xarah

  29. 5 out of 5

    Joshua Disneyq

  30. 5 out of 5

    Key

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