Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Eileen Sperry reviews The Work of the Dead

Thomas W. Laqueur. The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015. 736 pp.

Review by Eileen Sperry

Diogenes the Cynic, remembered for a range of socially deviant practices during his lifetime, proposed that when he died, his corpse should be consumed by dogs. To live according to nature is the greatest good, Diogenes argued, and humans violate that by treating the dead body as an individual rather than as what it really is: material waste whose fate has no bearing on the living. But Diogenes’s suggestion, Thomas W. Laqueur argues in The Work of the Dead, is met throughout time with resounding disagreement. The bodies of the dead do matter, he notes, even when belief tells us otherwise: “We care about, care for, feel with a dead body, although we know that instantly or very soon after what we call biological death it notices nothing, care for nothing, feels nothing” (p. 5). The bodies of the dead “do the work of culture” by “creat[ing] a community of memory” that unifies the living and defines the nature of humanity itself (p. 22).

After an introduction dedicated to the legacy of Diogenes’s proposal, The Work of the Dead is divided into four major sections. The first takes the “long anthropological view” of the book’s main argument that the dead are universally cared for (p. 8). Laqueur defines this care as a threefold practice. First, we reject Diogenes’s view that the dead body is mere matter, assigning it “a certain aura . . . even if we believe these remains are, in their essence, of no significance” (p. 80). Second, we assign the dead a persistent form of identity that fixes them in space and memory, regardless of our views of the afterlife. And finally, we make caring for the dead the constitutive act of society, “a cultural turning point” that signals “entry into symbolic behaviour” (p. 92).

The remaining sections then apply these claims to historical examples, concentrating on the treatment of the dead in England and Western Europe from the late seventeenth through the twentieth century. The rise in secularism and the beginning of Western modernity have long been characterized as a thanatological revolution; with waning church influence, many have claimed, the dead lose their hold on our cultural imagination. Not so, Laqueur argues; modernity “is not, as others have suggested, a story of progressive disenchantment, but rather a history of the creation of new ways of construing the fundamentally unbreakable bond between the materiality of the corpse” and the minds of the living (p. 84). Laqueur illustrates this claim through close examination of three major innovations or shifts in the treatment of the dead in this period: the relocation of the dead from intramural churchyards to extramural cemeteries (Part II); a new drive to individualize mass casualties by naming and memorializing the dead, especially British casualties of the first world war (Part III); and the reemergence of cremation as a socially acceptable postmortem practice (Part IV). While each shift is accompanied by contemporary claims of objectivity and disenchantment—such as concerns for public health that surrounded the move to cemeteries, or praise of modern technology in cremation—each, Laqueur argues, reveals the persistent charisma of the dead.

Laqueur capably executes the difficult balance between nuanced historicism and large-scale anthropological observation. The accounts of differences between various historical practices are thorough and useful; Laqueur’s thick description of the “old regime” of the churchyard, including its topology, botany, and architecture, provides an excellent resource to scholars in a range of fields (p. 112). But more importantly, Laqueur provides a persuasive example of the stickiness of cultural practice and the importance of challenging traditional periodization. Belief is belied by practice, and by attending to the latter rather than the former we can uncover new threads of historical continuity.

Finally, The Work of the Dead makes a powerful case for cultural studies to carefully consider the dead. This need is made even more pressing, Laqueur notes in the afterword, by advancements in modern medicine that have led to contemporary right-to-die conversations (here, in the book’s most notable omission, references to both Michel Foucault’s account of the biopolitical role of death—which Laqueur mentions only briefly earlier in the text—and Achille Mbembe’s recent work on necropolitics are conspicuously absent). The dead are useful—they do work, in Laqueur’s terms—because they reveal the limits of the system in which we find ourselves inscribed. “It takes time for the rent in the social fabric to be rewoven and for the dead to do their work in creating, recreating, representing, or disrupting the social order of which they had been a part. . . . The dead—understood as social beings—determine how we care for the dead body—the natural dead” (p. 10). It follows, then, that to fully understand the nature of that social order, cultural historians should look to the treatment of the dead, interrogating the rituals that persist even when the dead are, purportedly, no longer enchanted.