From the monumental pyramids of Egypt to the modern cemeteries of Arlington, humans always have cared deeply about the dead and the work of attending to their remains. When Diogenes told his students to treat his corpse as an empty husk and toss it to the wild animals, he violated one of humankind’s only universal taboos. InThe Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains,Thomas Laqueur *73 argues that human society is profoundly shaped by the activity of caring for the dead. The process promises meaning and remembrance, and helps us to live with the knowledge of our own mortality, Laqueur points out, writing, “The living need the dead far more than the dead need the living.”
The Work of the Dead opens in ancient Athens, but its focus is on the Western world in the era following the Enlightenment. The book traces how the overcrowded churchyards of the 17th century — where the local vicar buried unmarked, rotting corpses on top of each other — became the ordered, ecumenical, 19th-century cemetery. Laqueur, a professor of history at the University of California-Berkeley, analyzes the complex relationship between these changes and society’s evolving attitudes toward religion, citizen rights, and human dignity. The corpse increasingly was disconnected from religion and hopes of resurrection, but its inherent cultural value never waned.
Publisher’s Weekly writes, “This massive, mesmerizing work contains much that’s worth pondering.”The Economist adds, “The Work of the Dead is an enormous, erudite, sprawling, garrulous, exhausting, and brilliant piece of work … Diogenes will be turning in his grave.”