Why do we care about the dead? And what does this care keep alive in us? University of California, Berkeley, historian Thomas Laqueur is working through these questions, focusing on the history of European death cultures. Sprawling and ambitious in scope, his forthcoming book traces the different ways that the dead are put to work to help structure living societies.
The Work of the Dead tells the story of how Europe’s deceased traveled from the churchyard to the out-of-town cemetery via images of colonial power and national unity, and the new uses they were put to in the process. The project gathers a vast quantity of material on the praxis of death, from archaeological evidence of prehistoric burial rites to the modern practice of cremation. This wealth of detail evokes not only the specific individual necessity of mourning—of figuring out what we have lost when we lose someone important to us and how this importance can persist without the presence of its object—but the larger social task of creating histories, genealogies, and stories that organize our relations to one another. In Laqueur’s account, the social as such starts to look like a vast work of mourning. Or maybe it’s better to say that mourning looks like the starting point of the social. Animals know death too, but they don’t make such a habit of it.
His previous books include Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990) and Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (2003). Like these books, The Work of the Dead investigates the troubled line between nature and culture, and the manifold means by which broadly consistent physical facts become widely differing social realities.
In an interview, we talked about war memorials, Marx’s tomb, the names of the dead, and imperialist fantasies of murdering ghosts.
Can you give me a brief summary of the book you’re working on now?
The project I’m working on is called The Work of the Dead: Oblivion and Memory in Western Culture. I actually believe it to be broader than Western culture, but I want to be modest. The question I ask is, Why is it that we care for the dead body? We know that the dead body itself is just part of nature, that life has gone from it. But there’s a very long history going back to Paleolithic times of caring for the dead body, and people do it irrespective of what they believe about it. Socialists do it, Christians do it, Buddhists who believe that the body is irrelevant to the self do it. I’m interested in that puzzle.
Secondly, I’m interested in why we do it in practical ways: how dead bodies mark out borders and civilizations, how they seem to collect nations together. In other words, I want to argue that the living need the dead more than the dead need the living. The dead do all sorts of things for us.
I try to look at this in deep time, and I trace it through Christian traditions. I look at the 18th through the 20th centuries: how we find new places for the dead, how the cemetery replaces the churchyard, why, and how the cemetery is different from the churchyard. I explore why in the middle of the 19th century we start cremating people in these high-tech steel ovens that are borrowed from steelmaking technology, and what that means.
Lastly, I’m interested in the question of why, after so many centuries, millennia, of caring relatively little about the names of the dead, we’ve become so concerned about collecting them and marking landscapes with names, and putting names on memorials, and in general how we’ve come to think that every dead person has a name. Those are the big themes that I deal with.
In your book Making Sex, you insist on the idea that the body is culturally produced. You have a really nice phrase about how even though there is a body outside culture, we can access it only through culture. It seems that in relation to the dead, you can’t make that strong a claim. In some senses the biology of death—that bodies stop breathing, stop thinking, stop walking around—is absolute, and that’s an unassimilable fact that operates transculturally and transhistorically.
Sex operates like that too. Transhistorically, species that reproduce bisexually have two different sexes. So that’s the issue, how one understands and assimilates that fact into culture.
We know that Neanderthals buried, we know that some humans in the Paleolithic 25,000, 30,000 years ago buried. And as far as we have a record into the Upper Neolithic, very early settlements 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, people took care of the dead. So care of the dead is this moment in which the biological fact of death enters culture. Caring for the dead is like the incest taboo: It’s this moment, speaking theoretically, in which we move from nature into culture.
We care for the dead for all sorts of reasons, and each culture has made up many different reasons why it’s important. The dead are scary; the dead are scary for many reasons. The dead might be helped by the living and the living might be helped by the dead. The ultimate fact is that we care for the dead, and then we make up a bunch of reasons to justify that.
What strikes me as interesting is that we create communities with dead people that represent our communities, even though we know that what we’re burying is indistinguishable from anything else—the dead body of our friend is no different from the dead body of our enemy. But we believe it to be the dead body of a friend, and we invest meaning in that. We take nature, which is the dead body, and bring it into culture. That’s a very remarkable thing.
There are a bunch of tombs around Marx’s grave, and if an anthropologist were to dig it up a thousand years from now, they would think it looked exactly like a Sufi tomb, or a Catholic tomb, or a Hasidic tomb. Because somehow these dead materialist communists believe that their ashes produce a community with Karl Marx, even though their whole life philosophy suggests that’s rubbish. It’s not even his body in Highgate; it’s his ashes. But there’s a great Marx tomb that looks like there’s a body in it. There’s something equivalent in how we make gender out of sex. Everyone’s ashes are chemically indistinguishable, and yet ashes can make a community. If you were to say, okay, Marx’s ashes are there just to make a memorial, I would say that’s true, but it wouldn’t work without a body. If it were just a plaque with a name on it, it wouldn’t work. It’s similar to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; if you thought the body weren’t there, it wouldn’t work.
Even for people who explicitly believe that in death there’s nothing of the person left—for example, Marx was an Epicurean, and he thought that the atoms of your body returned to nature—the dead body matters. Mary Wollstonecraft’s husband writes very eloquently about what her dead body means to him. He says that, like her eyeglasses and her books are dear to him, all the more so her body, although he knows that she’s not in her body.
I was really interested in your description of cemeteries and how heavily they draw on a mishmash of ancient Egyptian architecture and other kinds. You also relate it to the colonial development of racial and national categories. Could you say more about how those things appear in these ornate cemeteries?
Before the Enlightenment, the only place you could get buried without ignominy was the churchyard. With the development of the cemetery, the dead make new kinds of communities.
In churchyards, the graves were all oriented east-west. In the English churchyard, there’s a particular botany: The yew tree is the tree of the churchyard. There’s only one kind of person in the churchyard: a Christian. There’s no private property in the churchyard, everything belongs to the community. Every monument has to have the approval of the parish priest, so you can’t build what you want there. The churchyard is a communal space, and it’s a space that belongs to the parish. Others can come in, but only by paying extra.
The cemetery is a place where (in theory) anyone can buy property, and you can lie next to anyone, and you can be buried in any direction you want to be buried. You can write anything you want on the tombstone. You can be any religion. If you’re Jewish, some rabbis might not be willing to bury you, but some rabbis would. It’s an open space, and people built according to the sensibilities of the day. Just like you can choose clothes that are slightly retro, the large cemeteries provided big tombs and they provided graves that looked like Egyptian tombs and Roman-style plinths, and you could present yourself in whatever way you wanted. The colonial cemetery in Calcutta looks like an imperial cemetery, it doesn’t look like a churchyard.
In Europe, every nation starts by producing national cemeteries. The first thing the Czechs do is produce a national cemetery. So the dead can produce all kinds of communities.
Race itself seems to have something to do with a long history of the dead.
In America there are segregated cemeteries, but it’s also the case with religious difference. In Northern Ireland, the Belfast cemetery has a Protestant and a Catholic section and it has a six-foot underground wall, so the purity of the Catholics and the purity of the Protestants won’t be violated. Communities of race and communities of servitude produce their own burial places.
The work of the dead is an immense feat of the human imagination. Not even the craziest 19th century racist argues that the actual bones of a dead black person are any different than the bones of a white person, and yet they won’t be buried next to each other. The dead are so crucial to making communities because they become paths to connect to the past. There was terrible uproar in Spain because the right wing has exhumed the bodies of Republicans and put them in the Franco memorial, which is seen as a monument to fascism. Yet the bodies don’t know the difference—they’re the same as the fascist bodies. Lorca has a wonderful line: “Nowhere are the dead more alive than Spain.” I don’t know if that’s especially true in Spain, but everywhere the dead are alive. We believe the dead to be alive whether we believe them to be ghosts or spirits or inhabit an afterlife. It’s immaterial whether or not we believe the dead are somewhere else—we take dead bodies to represent the dead and to matter and to be alive. A huge amount of life and culture is made manifest in the dead body.
We even believe the names to be alive. At the Vietnam Memorial people leave cigarettes and beer at the name of someone they loved. Even though if you actually asked them, do you actually believe in grave goods? Do you believe that there’s a ghost that will drink the beer? None of that. There’s no checklist of beliefs. But the name represents some version of the immortality or the presence of the person.
Is it a peculiarity of capitalist or white bourgeois society that it doesn’t specify any particular relation to the dead? Like you said about the people who leave beer at the Vietnam memorial, there’s no metaphysics that substantiates why they do it. That seems like a weird thing about modernity.
There aren’t many cultures that have a more engaged relation to the dead than the high capitalist or Victorian age. I think that now people are immensely engaged with the dead. There are endless battles about where someone can be buried. “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev can’t be in my cemetery.” Or people ingest ashes of their loved ones or get tattoos with ink made from the ashes of their loved ones. There are endless stories.
I think the bourgeoisie is if anything more actively engaged with the dead, though it’s hard to quantify. I certainly don’t believe that we’re not engaged with the dead. If you think of the dead of conflict, of the Holocaust, of war—they are crucial in our culture. In the high era of imperialist capitalism, the Unknown Warrior becomes a shrine in every European country. And there’s no theology that justifies it.
I would say in some sense that bourgeois culture is more engaged with the dead than before because it’s a way to deal with the anxiety of “all that’s solid melts into the air.” It doesn’t melt into air—it stops with the dead. Many bourgeois conventions, rituals, and gestures are to make it stop. I don’t believe the line that we ever stopped making the dead central in all sorts of cultures.
As you get more and more violent mass death, with colonialism and the wars of the 20th century, I was thinking about how unbearable it would be for the agents of this colonial culture to have the dead as this malevolent force. What if we did believe that the dead who died badly had some kind of presence? Of course symbolically the dead are very active, but we don’t really believe that the ghosts of people who died in concentration camps are haunting Angela Merkel. But we could. I was thinking about how the refusal of certain forms of death is also a convenient refusal of certain forms of guilt.
How long have ghosts ever haunted anyone? Ghosts haunt historically for relatively short amounts of time. People complained about the Holocaust memorial in Berlin exactly because you don’t want the ghosts of the Holocaust dead in the middle of the city. I think the ghosts of the Holocaust have survived for longer in Germany than ghosts of previous injustices have survived anywhere else.
The colonial issue is another one. The unjustly dead of the British have not survived. That’s an interesting question, and I think it has to do with an idea of colonial power. You can kill the ghosts—that’s the imperialist fantasy. The Roman idea that you could actually kill everyone in Jerusalem or Carthage and that would be the end of them. They would not come back. That is the fantasy of colonial power, and it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.
Is there a relation between death and gender?
I wanted to say at first, my book is mostly about men. Because of patriarchy, civilization is carried through men, and there’s less care for the dead women. But I think the truth of the matter is that it varies enormously from culture to culture and situation to situation. Sometimes archaeologically they find fewer women’s graves, because there are fewer women, like in the frontier societies of the Vikings. Sometimes there are equal numbers of women and women are cared for just as much as men.
I think that many public monuments and public presentations of the dead are about men because men die in war, and many of the great monuments to the dead are created in war. And “great men” have to be men, in patriarchal societies. But is there a dramatic difference in care of the dead by gender? Probably not. But that’s a hard thing to nail down. You can’t make the blanket statement that women’s bodies are less cared for in death, in general. The experts on the deep history of the dead aren’t clear on this.
The masculine/feminine binary relates women to birth, death and this murky substrate, more associated with nature—and you talked about the dead body returning to nature. What do you think about that possible connection between women and death?
Mourners tend to be women, and you could argue that this is symbolically because women bring life into the world. In Jewish culture and in many other cultures, the dead body and menstrual blood are part of the same pollution system. In my work, I’ve tended to not deal with this so much because I don’t think it has a history and I don’t think it has a way to be empirically studied. What my work does is to say, look, there’s a universal history of the dead, but how we care for the dead in particular places is a consequence of particular social and cultural situations, not of theology, and not of ideology. The dead make communities, the dead work for the living. Sometimes it’s the bodies of dead women, sometimes of dead men, and sometimes it’s indifferent.
How does all this relate to either the personal experience of bereavement as an absolute loss, or our own awareness that we ourselves are going to die one day?
The whole notion is that we care for the dead body because the dead body of a friend or a loved one is significant, even though we know they are gone. In mourning, there are different stages. The body or some version of the body, or some sense that the body is somewhere, is crucial to mourning, both in the acute stages of acute loss and in the long stages of maintaining family connections and genealogy.
At some point, the dead will fade away—probably within decades. But yes, it’s about mourning. It’s about acute mourning or longer mourning. Whether you put the ashes in a river, whether you put the ashes in a burial place, or where you put the body, is crucial to mourning.
While the dead are gone, they’re not gone. While the dead don’t speak, they speak. St. Paul said that and we can say it now: The dead don’t speak and yet we hear them speak. We hear them speak in St. Paul, we hear them speak in the poetry of Thomas Hardy. They speak, and they chastise us and they say loving things to us, they say all sorts of things to us. And they say it from where the body is, usually. So everyone in mourning believes their dead aren’t gone, they’re somewhere, and they’re something. That’s why the whole thing works. A dog doesn’t have a sense that a dead dog is anywhere, but humans believe that the dead are somewhere.
But animals can mourn, dogs can mourn. People have seen elephants mourning.
It’s very brief. It’s not over the long term. Humans are the only creatures who produce culture around the dead.