Historian Traces Our Relationship With The Dead : Shots - Health News Thomas Laqueur, author of The Work of the Dead, discusses the ways people have dealt with human remains over the course of history. Modern cemeteries, he says, are byproducts of the French Revolution.
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Bodies Through Time: A Historian Traces Our Evolving Relationship With The Dead

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

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

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. How do the living deal with the bodies of the dead - with the mortal remains? That's the question at the center of the book "The Work Of The Dead" by my guest Thomas Laqueur. He writes about how burial and cremation customs evolved over the centuries. Laqueur is a professor of history at the University of California Berkeley. He's also the author of the book "Making Sex: Body And Gender From The Greeks To Freud." Thomas Laqueur, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the story of your great-great-great-great-grandfather's tombstone because that story relates to your book.

THOMAS LAQUEUR: So I basically learned about my great-great-great-grandfather's tombstone from my cousin Walter Laqueur, who had been researching the history of the family. And because of what I learned from him, when I was giving a lecture at what used to be called Breslau - which was then in Germany, and is now called Wroclaw, which is in Poland - I visited the grave first of my great-grandfather, which is in the only intact German cemetery in that city, which is the Jewish cemetery. And then my host drove us about 30 or 40 kilometers to the east to this hillock in the middle of potato fields with a manor house in the middle of the nearby village and a Protestant church at one end and a Catholic Church at the other end and a small Jewish cemetery. And in that small Jewish cemetery, I found the grave of this man who was born David ben Eliezir (ph) and who took the name Laqueur and who was the first person with that name, and therefore my first known ancestor.

GROSS: And he was a rabbi. And the question is...

LAQUEUR: He was a rabbi.

GROSS: ...How did this tombstone survive for so long?

LAQUEUR: It's such an interesting question how the tombstone survived. And there are a few machine-gun holes in it, or bullet holes. But the cemetery in general is intact, which I thought was rather moving. And I was moved by seeing it and in some sense by his voice speaking because the tombstone sort of speaks in his voice and proclaims who he is. Of course, it's in Hebrew, and I don't know Hebrew so it's a student of mine who translated it for me. But I knew that the tombstone was speaking, and in some sense he was speaking.

GROSS: We take for granted that there are cemeteries in which a lot of people are buried, in which we can be buried if we choose to be. But there weren't always cemeteries like that - there were churchyards in which people were buried. So how far back does the cemetery as we know it date back to?

LAQUEUR: So on the one hand, it dates back to Greek antiquity. On the other hand, it dates back to 1801. And the reason for this disjuncture is because one of the most important - the most important aspect of the rise of Christianity and the end of paganism is the church's claim over the dead. And the church's claim over the dead is to pray for the dead and to care for their souls, but it took care their bodies. And so starting very early on, Christians came to be buried - first next to martyrs, and then around churches, and then churches got relics. So the creation of the churchyard is really a sign of the end of the pagan regime in which families cared for the dead and buried them generally in cemeteries, and the rise of this new religion and the creation of a new community of the dead, which is to say the community of the Christian dead buried around something holy. So then if we fast-forward to the late-18th century and the French Revolution, the French revolutionaries said, no, we want to unmake that history; we want to re-create the classical account of the body and what the bodies mean to families and what the bodies mean to the state and the communities. And they created the first cosmopolitan community of the dead, which was Pere Lachaise, which was explicitly not a churchyard. That is to say it was explicitly not just for Christians. It was explicitly cosmopolitan. The Russian could lie next to the Spaniard, the Jew next to the Christian. So the cemetery as a landscape feature and as a place for a new kind of community of the dead is really a creation of the French Revolution and its rejection of the history of the making of the churchyard.

GROSS: So Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, which you just described as being the first cemetery of its kind - that's a tourist attraction now. Among the people buried there are, like, Balzac, Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Proust, Jim Morrison.

LAQUEUR: Yes.

GROSS: How did it change how people were buried? I mean, it was not only a question of, like, the landscape and the place but probably also the rituals surrounding the burial - the marking of the grave.

LAQUEUR: Well, of course. The first thing to remember is the churchyards are a pretty small. And in Paris, the main burial place was not a churchyard but a large urban landscape where Les Halles is now, the market. And there were almost no monuments and it was a mess. And bodies after bodies after bodies were piled in churchyards and in these other sorts of spaces. So they were in disarray. We couldn't imagine the 18th-century churchyard or any kind of 18th-century burial place as these tidy little churches that we think of today. So you're right, there were very few monuments in churchyards. There was lumpy ground. There was room only for funerals of people whom the church wished to bury, so the Jim Morrisons of the world would probably not have been buried in these cemeteries. So in a way, you've got to think of the cemetery as a kind of whole new stage for creating communities of the dead.

GROSS: In America, my knowledge of early burials comes from watching movie and TV Westerns.

LAQUEUR: (Laughter).

GROSS: So I know I'm very informed about this. And my knowledge from that is that, you know, people had land and - you know, 'cause they're Westerns - people had land. And they, you know, buried loved ones in the backyard, out in the prairie or the wilderness or whatever. And they - you know, they'd mark it with a - you know, a cross or whatever. But what can you tell us about early burials in the U.S.?

LAQUEUR: Well, you're absolutely right. And in these great open spaces of America without any particular historical markings, people buried their dead on their farms. They buried them along the migration trails. But as soon as America became settled, they built cemeteries. So in my part of the world, in San Francisco, Colma, which was explicitly modeled on Pere Lachaise, was opened in 1854. So almost as soon as San Francisco becomes a city, it has a place for the burial of its dead. And in Boston - again, modeling its cemetery, Mount Auburn, explicitly on Pere Lachaise with some variation - sees this as sort of Boston coming into its own as a great 19th-century city. And I could point to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and, in fact, all over America. So as Americans settled, as they created cities, they produced cities of the dead.

GROSS: The idea of a cemetery kind of democratizes burial because you didn't have to be Christian. You didn't have to be in good standing with the church. On the other hand, it turns it into a more kind of capitalistic class system because you're buying your way in (laughter). And you're buying the prestigious spots. You're buying the view. And as you point out in the book, the idea of, you know, a final resting place with a view comes into practice with the cemetery. You want the place by the little stream or on the hill or under the tree.

LAQUEUR: You're absolutely right that the cemetery is, in many ways, considerably less democratic than the churchyard. At the same time, it's also more democratic in the sense that anyone can be buried there, as you say. But the poor are invisible. And in 18th-century churchyards, the poor may not have tombs. But the lumpy grounds testifies to the fact that they're there. And that was important to how people imagined the churchyard. So the real shift in the cemetery is yes, the prosperous can buy the more beautiful spots. And the poor, in some ways, are not there. On the other side, all sorts of political communities and alternative religious communities and others could create a space of their own dead in a cemetery, which wasn't possible in the churchyard. So in the one hand, it is a place for the prosperous. On the other hand, it's also an open kind of place, a kind of pallet, if you will, in which the bodies of a great variety of the dead can speak to the living.

GROSS: You know, with churchyards, they're not very big. And I know you said, you know, in previous centuries, churchyards were much bigger than what we're imagining now. But still, how many people could you accommodate there?

LAQUEUR: Well, they're not much bigger - let me quick - they weren't very much bigger. The churchyards were small.

GROSS: Oh, OK. So...

LAQUEUR: And vastly crowded.

GROSS: Yeah. So were people just, like, interred on top of each other? Were they recycled to make room for, like, more fresher bodies?

LAQUEUR: That's absolutely right. The dead were recycled, the churchyard just packed full of bodies. And in some churchyards, the ground is 2, 3 meters above its original level because of bodies. And the famous gravedigger scene in "Hamlet" where they're digging up the body is a literary example of that in which another body goes into the ground and one body comes up. So churchyards were really...

GROSS: I didn't know that, the alas-poor-Yorick-I knew-him-well scene?

LAQUEUR: Yes, exactly. So these were constantly being churned over. And, in fact, until the 17th century, people generally didn't have coffins. So the bodies were put in. They decayed. And then more come along. And if you'd look at the churchyards, as I said earlier there, they're lumpy. And every hundred years or so, they flatten the ground and dig up some bones. And they put some more bodies in. And then they become lumpy again. So these things have been around for 6 or 700 years. There are thousands of bodies there. They're a mess.

GROSS: Again, you know, I get a lot of my knowledge from movies (laughter). So in several films, the characters worry that they're going to be poor. They're going to not have enough money for a burial, and they'll be buried in potter's field. I used to think that there was a cemetery for the poor called Potter's Field. I think that's probably not true. But what was the meaning of the potter's field, and why were people in such fear of being buried in the potter's field?

LAQUEUR: Well, there are, in some places - they're not called literally Potters Fields - but they're places where people are buried in the aggregate. I think the interesting thing to me is that fear is less where the poor were buried. The fear is having an ignominious funeral. The fear is being taken there in an ignominious way. So what the poor saved for more than anything else, starting in the late 18th and the 19th century, is a proper funeral, that is to say a casket - a casket with little angels nailed to it, a proper cart, perhaps a horse with a plume. In other words, in some sense, that the dead body is still treated as if it were part of culture. The actual place of burial - that is to say in a common part of the cemetery - didn't seem to bother people as much. But I think where you're right, and it's - what's interesting is that the fear of an indecent funeral, of a pauper funeral, increases I think with the commercialization of death, both with the grandness of bourgeois funerals and with the fact that they really would be invisible in the cemetery. So in the 18th century, the whole operation was smaller. You die. You'd be buried in the churchyard. There wasn't this big public nature of it. In the 19th century, when your body had to go from your house to a cemetery, you don't want it on a donkey cart. It was awful. So poor people, freed slaves, all sorts of people cared deeply about this. They belonged to burial clubs - and box societies, they were called in England- and did all sorts of things to save enough money for being properly buried.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Thomas Laqueur. And he's the author of the new book, "The Work Of The Dead: A Cultural History Of Mortal Remains." He's also a professor of history at the University of California Berkeley. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about how we care for our dead. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is historian Thomas Laqueur. His new book is called, "Work Of The Dead: A Cultural History Of Mortal Remains." Since your book has so much to do with, like, you know, death and the burial practices and the way we treat the dead and the history of how people have wanted to be treated themselves when they die, it's interesting to note, as you do in your book, that your father was a pathologist and that he worked on autopsies. He had to prepare organs for microscopic examinations to determine the cause of death. And you watched him do that. So what impact did it have on you to see the organs of the dead, to see your father handling body parts of the dead?

LAQUEUR: I don't know how philosophical and analytic to be about this. I mean, the point is really that, you know, I lived in a family in which the dead were present. My father left the dinner table to do autopsies. And as a you say, I watched him prepare what he had taken from the bodies. My feeling is that my father regarded the dead very routinely in the way a mortician might regard them. He was interested in them scientifically. I never heard my father speak about the fact that his body mattered. But one of the things that surprised me in my own relationship to dead bodies is my relationship to his dead body. And so it was at the time - in 1995, I was going to Germany to give a talk, and my wife suggested that I take some of the ashes of my father and that I put them on the grave of my grandfather, who was also a doctor and who is buried in Hamburg. And I knew this grave because my grandmother, who lived with us, had a picture of the tombstone on her desk. And so I told my wife, look, we don't have any ashes of my father. I'd scattered them in a flower bed and consequently, there were no ashes. And she said, well, take some dirt. And I said, why would I take dirt, this microscopic, homeopathic bit of ash is no different than the fertilizer we've put in the flower bed. No, no, she said, take it. So I had a little Ziploc bag, and I took some of this dirt. And I took it, and I put it on my grandfather's grave. And it was very moving to me. It was sort of my father being returned to Germany after having been forced into exile by Hitler. And on the one hand, I heard my father's voice saying this is unsinn, as my father would say, this is nonsense. On the other side of the hand, I didn't believe it to be nonsense. And so I found myself, a completely secular person, somehow moved by returning something which I had made myself believe to be part of him to Germany. So it could be in reaction to my father's totally materialist account of the dead that I've become interested in this tension between the dead as something purely material and the dead as so culturally important.

GROSS: Well, it's interesting too - you know, we've been talking about burial practices over the centuries and how people visit graves. And both of your parents were cremated so you have no graves to visit for your parents, although you have visited the grave of your grandfather and your great-great-great-great-grandfather. And visiting those graves meant something to you. Do you feel the absence of a grave for your parents?

LAQUEUR: I should feel the absence of a grave for my parents, but in fact, I imagine a great. My mother's ashes were spread on the lake in Virginia where she loved it to swim. And I imagine her swimming very early morning with the mist still rising on the lake. And I imagine her to be there. And my father's ashes, I just spoke, was in this flower bed. And I moved some of this dirt from the flower bed. So in my imagination, I know where they are. And that's, again, some sort of strange cultural magic that we work to make the dead meaningful.

GROSS: Did your parents discuss with you their decision to be cremated?

LAQUEUR: No. I think it was taken for granted that they would be cremated. And I think that's something that's a view that goes back to the early 20th century when Reform Jews in Germany Jews - Jews who regard themselves as modern and scientific - opted for cremation in disproportionate numbers. In fact, Reform Jews in Italy and in Switzerland likewise opted for cremation as a sign of modernity. And so I assumed that that's what my parents would want, but we never discussed it.

GROSS: So it was your decision to cremate them. They didn't tell you they wanted...

LAQUEUR: It was my decision.

GROSS: Do you want to be cremated, may I ask?

LAQUEUR: I do. I was kind of assuming I'm going to be cremated, yes.

GROSS: Because...

LAQUEUR: Well, because I suppose my parents were cremated. Because I think perhaps my wife or my daughter might want to scatter my ashes in different places that meant something to me. One of the beauties of cremation - it allows you to distribute the material remains of someone and imagine that person being at the same time in different places, which they can never be, of course, when they're alive. So I can imagine some of my ashes being spread in an apple orchard we have in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and I could imagine some being taken back to Virginia, to that a flower bed if they're still there. So I imagine it as making my body more divisible for those who come after me.

GROSS: So it's interesting that even though you don't want to be buried and don't have that kind of - you're not placing that kind of value on your body or burial, you're still placing symbolic significance on your ashes and what happens to those remains.

LAQUEUR: I am still doing that. And I think I share that with lots of people. I mean, the striking thing is how much we - and I think we not just in the West but in other places in the world - care about these paltry remains of the human body and how important it is that they're there or that they're not there. I mean, the controversy now in France is what to do with the bodies of terrorists who died in these police responses to them. And in some sense, you say, who cares? They're just ashes. And yet, people care deeply. So in that sense, we do make ashes just as we made bodies, something special despite the fact that they're so little.

GROSS: My guess is historian Thomas Liqueur, author of the new book "The Work Of The Dead: A Cultural History Of Mortal Remains." He's a professor of history at the University of California Berkeley. After a short break, we're going to talk about an earlier book whose subject is sexual in nature. Nothing explicit, but parents, that part of our conversation may not be appropriate for young children. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Thomas Laqueur. He is the author of the new book "The Work Of The Dead: A Cultural History Of Mortal Remains" and an earlier book called "Making Sex: Body And Gender From The Greeks To Freud." He's a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. This next part of our conversation relates to sexuality - nothing explicit, but parents you may feel it's inappropriate for young children. So in the spirit of death and sex, I'm going to change the subject from the topic of your new book - how we take care of our dead - to the subject of an earlier book, a book called "Solitary Sex," which is basically a history of taboos against masturbation. Why did you want to investigate that?

LAQUEUR: Well, I think I can give you two reasons. I mean, the more general reason and the reason that ties these two books together is that much of my work in the last 20 or 30 years and my interest is how you humans give meaning to their bodies. And so a taboo against solitary sex and at a very different level giving meaning to a dead body are part of the same project. But the specific historical reason I was interested in this is that it was puzzling - that is to say all of a sudden, in the 18th century and then dramatically more in the 19th century, doctors and religious people but also secular people and educators all began to think that solitary sex was just awful. It was morally awful but also dangerous. It was medically dangerous. And so I thought really? This should start at a particular time. And I can actually nail when it started. It started in 1712 with a little pamphlet, and I thought that was a remarkable fact. And so I became interested in exploring how is this possible? How is it taboo that everyone now knows about come into being when 300 years ago, no one would have given it any thought?

GROSS: What happened in 1712? What was his pamphlet?

LAQUEUR: Ah, I'm so glad you ask. In 1712, an anonymous writer - though I think I know who we is, he's a surgeon named Marten - published a track called "Onania" which is given this - taken from the name of Onan, who, in Genesis 12, was struck down by God for spilling his seed on the ground. Now, never before the early 18th century did people connect Onan specifically with solitary sex. So this man publishes this pamphlet. And it says horrible things are going to happen to you if you do this, but I have a cure. You can pick up this cure at any coffeehouse or at some of the drinking places. And he started advertising it widely. And people started buying it, and people started sending him letters. And this track was translated, and there were copycat tracks. And so by the 1750s, this track was being cited in the encyclopedie, the great work of the French Enlightenment in which the author said look, this is a piece of trash this work. On the other hand, this guy gets the credit for having brought this thing to the attention of humanity. And so it grew through commercial networks. It grew because I think it played to very particular 18th-century fears. But I'm absolutely sure that it starts then because I know that these - especially - take early Christian thinkers - or Jewish thinkers for that matter - who thought about the details of human sexuality and X was the detail - didn't mention it. That's really surprising.

GROSS: I have a book that I bought at a thrift store many years ago that I bought purely, like, for camp and irony. And it was called something like "On Becoming A Man," and it had all kinds of, like, advice to, you know, boys on the verge of their teenage years. And among the advice were warnings. The warnings were really pretty dire. I don't remember exactly what they were, but, you know, bad things were going to happen. And this...

LAQUEUR: Very bad things were going to happen to you.

GROSS: Yeah, and this book is from somewhere between the 1930s and the 1950s. I honestly don't remember. But to what extent do you think these prohibitions and these, like, medical fears are still passed on to people?

LAQUEUR: You know, it's so hard to say. I mean, do people still feel guilty? But - is this still something we can't talk about? Probably so. And why that's the case and why there's so many jokes in popular culture about the objection of this act is peculiar. I mean, "American Pie" is an example. I mean, it's a joke in popular culture. Now, I should say in some sense it's always been a joke. It's not as if the ancients in the West and other parts of the world didn't know this existed. And it was usually a joke about the fact that hey, you're so poor you can't afford a prostitute? Or this is what women do when the guys are way or some kind of a - it was a joke. And that continues to be the case. It was in the early 18th century, this didn't become a joke. And very serious people, like Rousseau, Kant thought this was really emblematic of the worst possible moral act you could commit - really the worst possible. So that Rousseau goes on his most important book for - on how to bring up kids saying look, when your charged does something bad that you can see, you can correct them. But this is something they do in secret. And they develop this desire, and they feed this desire without knowing anything about it. And soon they're caught up in this endless whirlpool of desire. It's thought of like addiction. And therefore, when a parent or schoolmaster's charge starts being involved with this, it's the most dangerous thing that can happen. So it's just endless desire endlessly not fulfilled, and it was connected in the late 18th century to addiction, which is a new word roughly the same time that masturbation became a fear.

GROSS: So as you pointed out, you think that the fear about solitary sex, as your book is titled, dates back to the pamphlet from the early 1700s.

LAQUEUR: I'm quite sure of that.

GROSS: You're quite sure of that, OK.

LAQUEUR: I'm quite sure of that (laughter).

GROSS: And it connects this fear to the story of Onan in the Bible, where God punishes Onan because Onan spilled his seed.

LAQUEUR: Right.

GROSS: And that's always been interpreted I think - or at least in the modern times has been interpreted as, like, God punished Onan for masturbating. Is there...

LAQUEUR: Right, that's...

GROSS: ...An alternate interpretation?

LAQUEUR: Oh, there are many alternate temptations. I mean, you could imagine the rabbis were going on and on about this. And the reason that God punished Onan is that Onan disobeyed his father and Onan disobeyed the Levitical law to bear children with his dead brother's wife. So Onan was killed by God because he was disobedient. And the disobedient act was failure to engage in reproductive sex. Before the 18th century, no one thought that the specific act whereby Onan's spilt his seed on the ground was what we would call masturbatory.

GROSS: OK, I've enjoyed talking with you. Thank you - thank you very much.

LAQUEUR: I've enjoyed the talking with you. Thank you very much.

GROSS: Thomas Laqueur is the author of "Solitary Sex" and the new book "The Work Of The Dead: A Cultural History Of Mortal Remains." He's a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. After a short break, we'll hear from comic book writer Neil Gaiman, who writes "The Sandman" series. This is FRESH AIR.

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