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The Work of the Dead

A Cultural History of Mortal Remains

by Thomas W. Laqueur

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Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris is considered the first modern community of the dead. Michel Euler/AP hide caption

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Bodies Through Time: A Historian Traces Our Evolving Relationship With The Dead

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Excerpt: The Work Of The Dead

The Work of the Dead

A Cultural History of Mortal Remains


Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-15778-8


Preface, ix,
Acknowledgments, xv,
Introduction: The Work of the Dead, 1,
1 Do the Dead Matter?, 35,
2 The Dead Body and the Persistence of Being, 55,
3 The Cultural Work of the Dead, 80,
4 The Churchyard and the Old Regime, 112,
5 The Cemetery and the New Regime, 211,
6 The Names of the Dead in Deep Time, 367,
7 The Rise of the Names of the Dead in Modern history, 388,
8 The Age of Necronominalism, 413,
9 The Names of the Great War, 447,
10 Disenchantment and Cremation, 495,
11 Ashes and history, 523,
Afterword: From a History of the Dead to a History of Dying, 549,
Notes, 559,
Image Credits, 679,
Index, 681,



He looked down intently into a stone crypt. Some animal. Wait. There he goes. An obese grey rat toddled along the side of the crypt, moving the pebbles. An old stager: greatgrandfather: he knows the ropes. The grey alive crushed itself in under the plinth, wriggled itself in under it. Good hidingplace for treasure.

Who lives there? Are laid the remains of Robert Emery. Robert Emmet was buried here by torchlight, wasn't he? Making his rounds.

Tail gone now.

One of those chaps would make short work of a fellow. Pick the bones clean no matter who it was. Ordinary meat for them. A corpse is meat gone bad.

James Joyce, Ulysses

Diogenes the Cynic, the dog philosopher, had an answer to this chapter's question: No, the dead do not matter. There is nothing behind the veil of the corpse but rotting organic matter. It is the answer that reason, speaking for nature, gives to culture, demanding that culture explain itself. If Diogenes had not existed, we would have had to invent him; we need a spokesman for what we believe but find unacceptable: the rupture wrought by death on the body. We need someone to insist that the dead do not matter so that we can respond with reasons for why they do. Some two or three centuries after Cicero's account of Diogenes' views (see the introduction's epigraph), the Cynic's first biographer tells an even more aggressively defiant story about him: "Some say that when dying he left instructions that they should throw him out unburied, that every wild beast might feed on him, or thrust him into a ditch and sprinkle a little dust over him. But according to others, his instructions were that they should throw him into the Ilissus, in order that he might be useful to his brethren." No one in the Western tradition makes the case against the pretensions of the dead body more uncompromisingly and with such enduring influence: a well-reported and seemingly commonsense rejection of all that decency and custom prescribe. Pierre Bayle, the first great enlightenment historian of philosophy and a religious skeptic, gets at the qualities that make him such a worthy opponent: he was, Bayle writes, "one of those extraordinary men who are upon extremes in everything, without excepting reason [without excepting the dead, I will add], and who verify the maxim that there is no great wit without a mixture of folly." Diogenes became the great spokesman for the dead body as fundamentally profane, unenchanted, a part of nature, mere matter, carrion (fig. 1.1).

His younger contemporary, Plato, described him as "a Socrates gone mad." he pushed the philosophical pursuit of virtue off the rails; his views on the dead, as on other matters, were crazy. Diogenes is said to have masturbated in public because he thought finding sexual satisfaction was no more embarrassing or private than satisfying one's hunger by having a meal in the agora. He lived on the street, in a barrel, and once told Alexander the Great, who admired him and wanted to do him a good deed, that the only favor he wanted was that Alexander "cease to shade [him] from the sun." He got in trouble for forgery. The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk gets him right: "a man who smells the swindle of idealistic abstractions and the schizoid staleness of thinking limited to the head": a clown — perhaps the most famous derelict in history — who tested the limits of culture and convention and tried to act on the fact that to be dead is to be nothing (plate 3).

Socrates almost went that far. 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. He cared little how he would be buried: bury me, he said, "in any way you like if you can catch me and I do not escape you." There would be no Socrates still around to bury. But the live Socrates did not ask his students to reject all that was customary. Diogenes the Cynic did. The differences between them were not metaphysical. Diogenes was not a materialist who believed that death left nothing of a person behind; like the others known as Cynics, and like Socrates, he believed in an immaterial and immortal soul. His views about what to do with the dead body had nothing to do with his views on an afterlife and everything to do with what he thought it meant to live this life virtuously. The virtuous man, he taught, ought to comport himself as closely as possible to nature, that is, to live as one who, like a dog, would do in public what others would do only in private: defecate, fornicate, and masturbate as the natural urges made themselves felt. All decency and civility worked against this sort of austerity and commitment to principle; Socrates followed convention. Diogenes did not, and the dead body had no excuse for not doing likewise. Like a dog, it could subsist virtuously (that is, according to nature) more easily than when it was alive. We humans could and should, as the saying goes, "be buried like dogs," that is, not be buried at all, assuming, of course, that dogs are buried like dogs. In fact, almost everywhere since as far back as we can go, dogs have often not been buried like dogs but in some intimate relation with humans. These dogs — those buried like humans — insist through their dead bodies that they are not part of the natural world but of the world of culture. But that is another, if related, story.

For more than two thousand years, skeptics, speaking in the name of Diogenes, have mocked the social pretensions of doing things for the dead, and especially the folly of funerary practices and monuments. They have spoken for the rupture at death between nature and culture. One story from the first century B.C.E. is an embellishment of the one we have already heard. "If then you die, who will bury you?" the dog philosopher was asked. "Whoever wants my house," he replied. This was the Greek equivalent of "Who cares?" he was famously a street person who took shelter in a large wine cask. Where to be buried and how, he thought, were equally inconsequential. Diogenes inspired stories as few other philosophers of antiquity did. In fact, everything we might claim to know about him is from the mouths of others. A disciple supposedly asks him how to die. "Live according to virtue and nature, and that is in our power." Remember that just as one comes from nature at birth, so one will return to nature when dead; nature begets and destroys. And finally, he jokes about his dead body in such a way as to make fun of the truth that it is already back in nature: "I have no worry about my being at any time unconscious of feeling," because I am sure that "I shall be furnished with a staff after breathing my last, that I might drive away the animals that would defile me."

From this follows a long tradition, running from antiquity to Charles Dickens in the nineteenth century to Jessica Mitford in the twentieth, that much or all care for the dead is folly. In one of Lucian's (ca. 125–180 C.E.) Dialogues of the Dead, for example, we find Diogenes and King Mausolus of Caria (d. 353 B.C.E.), the eponymous inhabitant of the first "mausoleum," meeting as corpses in the nether world (fig. 1.2). The philosopher starts the conversation by asking the king whether he thinks he is better off than the rest of the dead because his wife was so fulsome in her grief — she is said to have made herself "a living and breathing tomb" by drinking his ashes mixed in a potion — and because she had built "the Mausoleum at halicarnassus" for him. Near present-day Bodrum on the Aegean coast of Turkey, it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Mausolus answers by recounting his deeds and by bragging about his tomb, made of the fairest marble with bas-relief ornaments that were "horses and men reproduced most perfectly." If all this does not prove his superiority, what does? he asks. "But, my handsome Mausolus," Diogenes replies, "the strength and the beauty you mention aren't still with you here." Your skull is no better than mine; we are both bald and fleshless; our teeth show; our eyes are gone; our noses snubbed. In fact, he continues, having a big tomb does not make Mausolus better than any of the other corpses except perhaps, as he says to the crestfallen king, because you can "claim to carry more weight than the rest of us with all that marble on top of you." "Will Mausolus and Diogenes be on an equal footing?" Mausolus asks, trying to make the best of it. No, not even that, Diogenes replies. He himself "has no idea whether he even has a tomb for his body, for he didn't care about all that," but if he does not have one, then all the better, because being remembered "as one who lived the life of a man ... towers above your memorial, and is built on surer foundations." Three long-lived tropes emerge here: first, the futility of marking a particular body with a monument; second, mockery of the illusion that the dead persist in matter, that ashes are a person, and that eating them is a way of somehow re-embodying the dead; and finally, the trope of the equality of the dead.

Some version of the conversation about the futility of taking care of particular bodies when the dead are all basically the same, and all equally irrelevant, became an enormously generative trope. Today it may be best known from the most famous seventeenth-century example: the grave scene (5.1) from hamlet. Hamlet asks horatio, as the two contemplate the skull of Yorick,

Ham: Doest thou think Alexander looked o' this fashion i' the earth?

Hor: E'en so.

Ham: And smelt so? Pah!

Hor: E'en so my lord.

Ham: To what base uses may we return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung hole?

Hor: 'Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.

Ham: No faith, not a jot. But to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returnest into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer barrel.

The great king is of the same stuff — dust, clay — that might be mixed into loam to make a plug for a bunghole. Diogenes is not mentioned explicitly, and Shakespeare could have taken the idea that informs this discussion from elsewhere. But the Cynic is only a step away, if that. The emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius, who, like other Stoics, much admired the Cynics, reports that "Alexander of Macedon and his groom are equals now in death." Both are now no more than dust, he says, in a comment that is near the start of a long tradition of seeing the dead Alexander as the limit case for the nothingness of bones. Diogenes has been often and continuously linked to Alexander since antiquity.

Less than a century after Hamlet, an anonymous storyteller makes the same connection between Diogenes and Alexander, on the one hand, and the undifferentiated materiality of the dead, on the other. This time, the king and the philosopher meet not in the sun but in a charnel house. Alexander asks Diogenes what he is doing there. "I am seeking your father's bones and those of my slave," the philosopher replies, but he is unsuccessful "because there is no difference between them." This story has no ancient source — the Greeks, unlike the Christians, had no charnel houses; Diogenes did not have a slave, although he was said to have been one for a time. It seems to have been invented as a parable for radical Protestants to use to criticize Catholics for their veneration of relics and more moderate Protestants for their superstitious persistence in burying the dead inside churches as if place mattered. By the nineteenth century, Diogenes' reply had become commonplace in dictionaries of quotations and source books for preachers. If the dead are indistinguishable from one another and from the dust from which they came, they really don't matter. He gives voice to the view that there is no reason to venerate one corpse over any other. If corpses matter at all, they all matter the same — which is to say, not very much.

In the long history of repeating one version or another of Diogenes' challenge, the answer has almost always been "yes, you are right, the corpse is nothing": "all flesh is grass and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field" (Isa 40:6, 1 Pet 1:24); dust to dust; let the body go. But at the same time, no one has been able to live with the consequences of this view. For thousands of years, Diogenes' sophism or its equivalent has earned assent and at the same time been rejected in a great variety of forms and in response to a wide range of needs, interests, and beliefs. In this dialogue, culture always has an answer to nature and to the philosopher who says we should live and die naturally, as dogs do.

One of the most important and influential these is St. Augustine's, from the fourth century C.E. He seems to take the Cynic's side when he asks, "Whether the location of [a] body is of any advantage to the soul of the dead?" It demands careful study, he says. "We should especially inquire, not according to common belief, but according to the sacred writings of our religion, if it has any effect on the souls of men for enduring or for increasing their misery after this life, whether their bodies have not been buried." If pagan philosophers — Diogenes or those influenced by him — could be indifferent to what happened to their dead, Christians should, all the more, not be ashamed to have their martyred dead left unburied: "earth has not covered many of the bodies of the Christians, but nothing has kept any one of them from heaven and earth." having a proper grave does not matter. The faithful should not believe the "fabulous poetic imaginings" of pagans about the fate of the unburied or uncared-for dead. Augustine is thinking here of a story from Virgil's Aeneid (6.348–394) that would have been known to every educated reader. The poet tells of the "horrendous banks" of the River Styx, where a "huge throng of the dead" wait: "mothers and grown men and ghosts of great souled heroes, their bodies stripped of life, and boys and unwed girls," a helpless "great rout." The ferryman Charon will not take them across "the hoarse, roaring flood," "until their bones are buried and they rest in peace." Augustine explains that this is all a silly fable: the fate of the soul is independent of the fate of the body.

This is the great Church Father speaking in his soteriological voice. But he is not willing to go all the way with Diogenes in rejecting what he takes to be a fundamental human impulse: the care of the dead body. "The bodies of the dead, and especially of the just and faithful, are not to be despised or cast aside. The soul has used them as organs and vessels for all good work in a holy manner.... Bodies are not for ornament or for aid, as something that is applied externally, but pertain to the very nature of the man." Caring for them is therefore a sign of piety, of love, of affection, and of religious devotion. It is a "comfort for the living." It is a mark of civility and decency: exactly what Diogenes rejected. But more important, it is about linking the common dead to the divine through the bodies of blessed martyrs — the special dead — around whom they are buried. Place and proximity matter after all. Augustine recalls how, before he became a Christian, he witnessed the miraculous restoration of sight to a blind man as an immense crowd gathered for the translation of the long-lost bones of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius into Milan's cathedral. It would come to matter a great deal where Christians were buried; in fact, for more than a thousand years to be buried anywhere but in proximity to the body of a saint or some other relic was to be "buried like a dog." Necro-sociability would become the heart of Augustine's Church. Some bodies did matter, and it was important to believers that they be buried near them rather than be thrown over the wall (fig. 1.3).

Almost everyone who wrote seriously about death was in conversation with Diogenes. Erasmus (1466–1536), the greatest of the Christian humanists, attributed to Diogenes the views of epicurus, the materialist philosopher, on why being dead should be a matter of no concern. Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682), the pious seventeenth-century physician and essayist, seems at first — like St. Augustine, but from a Protestant perspective — to agree with Diogenes. Having dissected many dead bodies, he knows from experience that they are nothing but rot and decay. And because he knows this so well, he does not, he says, care what happens to his own body. Like Diogenes, he is willing to bid "totall adieu of the world, not caring for a Monument, history, or epitaph, not so much as the bare memory of my name to be found any where but in the universal Register of God." What is the point? "Grave-stones tell truth scarce fourty years"; the names of the great concourse of the dead, in number far greater than the names of the living, are almost all lost. From the perspective of deep time it does not matter what one does with the dead; "who can but pity the founder of the pyramids?"