Book Review: The Work of the Dead
by Thomas W. Laqueur
Princeton University Press, 2015
“The charisma of the dead – or charismata, as theologians might put it,” as University of California history professor Thomas Laqueur writes at the beginning of his enormously detailed and absorbing new book The Work of the Dead, “the gift of God to man for the building of the church – exists in our age as in other ages not because of the persistence of old wine in new bottles (we are all still enchanted) but because we have never been disenchanted.” The book, a somber-looking thing from Princeton University Press, ranges in its inquiry over many centuries, looking at the subtly-changing nature of the ways of what Laqueur refers to as construing 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.”
It’s a remarkably supple and fascinating study, providing as it were the sociological and forensic underpinning of every ghost story ever told. Burying corpses with some kind of ceremony, as Laqueur points out, is “a representation of an imagined drama yet to unfold.”
That drama unfolded in past ages in some very different ways than it does in the present, where burial is not only regularized but institutionalized, with an accountability that would have struck earlier ages as incomprehensibly far-fetched. The idea of graveyard-keepers brusquely shifting around buried bodies to make room for more – the idea that the Parker family has, over time, been shifted away from the plot with all their headstones and now lay jumbled together in the soil under the paved cemetery walkway – would strike most of Laqueur’s readers as something very close to sacrilege. And yet for centuries it was the accepted norm:
The churchyard was not primarily a space for individual commemoration or for mourning at a family grave; indeed, there was, as we shall see, technically no such thing, even if custom allowed it. Passersby would have seen a few temporary wooden markers; there were wreaths or in some cases plaques inside the church, but outside there was little that was intended to be permanent. Some of the elite of a parish had marked individual graves outside, and in sparsely populated parishes there was some hope that a family of bodies might remain for decades or even centuries together in a vault or at least in proximity to one another. There were few tombstones – five, ten, maybe twenty – in a space that we know holds thousands of bodies, and they were not set in concrete. They are invariably depicted as tilting precariously, as if to proclaim their impermanence.
And Laqueur’s account extends beyond the confines of cemeteries and burial grounds; in his later chapters, he deals with the somberly related topic of death’s inevitability – and how 21st century medicine has complicated that topic as it’s never been complicated before:
The claim for a right to die is a result of a new and unprecedented claim for individual autonomy at the end of life. Perhaps one always died alone, but never so explicitly could one dictate the terms of one’s own dying, often down to the last detail. Death had and still has the upper hand in any negotiation with us mortals, but now we – each of us as individuals – try to drive a harder bargain.
The Work of the Dead threads all these discussions together into a work that’s both provocative and, you should pardon the term, lively (and readers should be sure not to miss the wonderfully argumentative end notes). It’ll change the way you look at being dead and buried.