Why We Need the Dead

March 7, 2016   •   By Sharon R. Kaufman

The Work of the Dead

Thomas W. Laqueur

i. who gets buried where, and why it matters

WHAT WE DO with dead bodies matters. President Obama deliberately had Osama bin Laden’s corpse dropped at sea, reportedly attached to 300 pounds of iron weights. In this way, he prevented any terrestrial burial site from becoming a place of pilgrimage and martyr worship. Of course, from the government’s point of view, the political importance of dropping this particular body at sea was clear: bin Laden was an outlaw and an outcast from civil society, unworthy of traditional Islamic burial, and unworthy of a final resting place among the global community of humankind. Yet, also of critical importance: Obama consulted religious scholars to make sure that, before being dropped overboard, the body was washed and wrapped in a white shroud according to the dictates of Islamic law. In other words, the mortal remains of the world’s most famous terrorist received the care his religion required. These highly orchestrated political and religious gestures signified both the membership of the corpse in a community of faith, deserving of proper ritual, and also that this particular dead body was not to be settled permanently in a place or remembered with a marker.

We want dead bodies to be in the right place. Caring for the dead is a foundational human activity, and so the wrong dead body in the wrong place, or bodies abandoned or desecrated, is considered an affront to the moral order. Consider the following case in point: In 2002, all hell broke lose when an investigation of the Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Georgia, found more than 300 decomposing bodies and body parts scattered over 16 acres, stacked in steel vaults and piled in storage sheds. “There were bodies stacked like cordwood, just discarded and thrown in a pile,” one investigator told reporters. The crematory owner reported that his incinerator had stopped working. Funeral directors in Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama — and families of the deceased, who had received concrete dust rather than their loved ones’ ashes — felt betrayed and victimized by the deception. Screaming, angry crowds appeared at the court hearings and the sentencing of the owner, and some called for the death penalty. Nearly 2,000 family members were represented in class-action suits. The crematory had ignored its “‘sacred’ obligation,” the LA Times reported. The scandal made headline news worldwide. As a result of the macabre discovery and the lax regulation that had enabled the calamity, laws changed. Burial facilities must now be inspected, and crematories must have licenses. Matter that is out of place, the anthropologist Mary Douglas famously noted, is polluting and profane; its out-of-placeness stains everything and everyone around it. More than a decade later, the families affected were still haunted, and this was true whether the remains of their relatives were still lost or had in fact been found, identified, and properly disposed of.

Not only do we want dead bodies to be in the right place, our collective response to decaying and dead bodies exposes fundamental truths about social conditions, and especially about the vulnerability of the poor. In Heat Wave, anthropologist Eric Klinenberg investigated the aftermath of the 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed 700 people in a week. The science of the medical autopsy became the lens for viewing the deaths, which were said to be “caused by natural disaster.” Journalists focused on the aftermath of the problem — the refrigeration and storing of corpses in the city center. They did not focus on its source — the deplorable housing conditions that endangered the poor, frail, isolated elderly, who comprised the majority of the victims. The sheer quantity of the dead was important in the public narrative, as was the need for sanitation, aesthetics, and order in processing their bodies. Significantly, however, in the media, the bodies remained nameless, unconnected to specific families and neighborhoods. Forty-one of those bodies were never claimed and were buried in a mass grave, unidentified, at Homewood Memorial Cemetery in a suburb of Chicago. No family members were present at the burial. Nor did the grave — more than 160 feet long and 10 feet wide — have a marker. There was “nothing to show that the bodies buried therein testify to the expendability of life on the margins of a major American metropolis at the moment of its greatest prosperity.” A year later, a group of private citizens erected a granite monument to mark the bodies. Other than the occasional journalist, no one visits. “If the heat wave’s popular obituary conceals the social conditions and processes that produced its effects,” writes Klinenberg, then “the story of its largest funeral speaks its deepest truths. Far from being the great equalizer, the deaths of the Chicagoans for whom no one came only reinforced and perpetuated the degradation of their lives.” “For now,” Klinenberg concludes, “the trauma stands as a nonevent in the grand narrative of affluence and prosperity that dominates accounts of U.S. cities in the 1990s.”

If the bodies of the unconnected poor and marginalized are treated merely as so much matter, then what happens when cherished bodies — those deeply embedded in emotional networks — are lost? When their place of death and burial is unknown, grief may be compounded. The living need to put the dead to rest and they need to know where the dead, their dead, lie. Fifty years after the Vietnam War, a group of grown children of American service members whose bodies remain missing in Vietnam traveled there in an attempt to locate their fathers’ last known whereabouts. One son visited a river where his father had drowned in 1971, and he placed a photograph of the man’s 1968 Camaro, along with some cigars, on the riverbank. One daughter of a fighter pilot had made many futile attempts to locate the site of his death and burial until the US Defense Department sent her the coordinates of what may have been the crash site of her father’s jet. The map led to a room-sized crater at the end of a dirt trail in a stand of rubber trees. She walked into the crater, fell to her knees, spoke to her father, and, weeping, dug a hole in the ground with her fingers, burying the missing-in-action bracelet she had worn for almost 50 years — though she never could be sure she had found the right place. Mementos of remembrance are private links to the life and death being honored. They are potent symbolic substitutes for respectful burial.

Finally, our age of migration and globalization raises a new set of conundrums with respect to identity and burial location. Immigrants must choose, if they have a choice at all, whether they and their relatives should be buried in their new country of residence or repatriated. Those who choose the former are establishing a new home and situational identity for the deceased and for his or her descendants. Many immigrants and refugees, however, insist on returning to their country of origin to die or to be buried.


ii. the work of settling the dead “safely”

The historian Thomas Laqueur doesn’t speak specifically to any of these events in his new book, The Work of the Dead, but I was reminded of each of them as I read his magnificent tome.

Location and manner of burial may matter to us, but the dead body, the corpse, no longer sentient, does not care about its fate. Laqueur informs us that the philosopher Diogenes the Cynic, who lived two and a half millennia ago, urged his students to toss his carcass over the city wall, where it would be devoured by beasts. It would not matter to him. How could it? “He” would no longer be contained within his corpse. It would be without life, “smelly, putrefying flesh that had lost whatever had made it alive” and would soon be bones and then nothing. Though Diogenes spoke one truth about the materiality of the corpse, Laqueur insists that his provocation dismisses the other, more powerful, truth — the historical fact that the living care deeply about the dead and always have. The dead retain their relationships to the living and indeed are an essential part of their cultural world. They need to be “settled safely” or, more importantly, we need to settle them safely, which means we need to settle them in ways that history and custom and community and memory consider appropriate. Diogenes’s students did not honor his request. And though subsequent philosophers have, on rationalist grounds, agreed with his materialist premise, rationality does not win out when it comes to mortal remains. We need the dead too much. Our connectedness with them needs physical anchoring so that we can remember them in the “right” way. The ways in which that disposition and memorialization occur shape cultural patterns and the personal sensibilities of the living. The work the dead do is constitutive of social, political, and religious life.

In addressing these themes as they have unfolded over two millennia, Laqueur grapples with Diogenes’s challenge: the tension between the body as nothing and as something of great importance.

What we do with the dead shapes, sustains, and reinforces social order. The book is a two-thousand-year survey of their impacts on our public affairs and private yearnings. Laqueur makes his points through a wealth of sources — including tales of stolen and reburied corpses; and records of disputes among clerics, philosophers, politicians, and ordinary citizens about where bodies belong. He also uses examples drawn from architecture, botany, landscape design, city planning, public health, and modern medicine. He draws on poetry and personal letters to and from battlefields. And he includes descriptions of what the poor, the rich, and the middle class wanted for their own dead bodies and those of their loved ones. The dead, he argues, have helped “make” the modern world.

In the introduction, Laqueur highlights the work of sociologist Robert Hertz, who was the first to describe, in 1907, the distinction between biological and social death. Hertz argued that death does not coincide with the destruction of an individual’s life but is rather a social event and the beginning of a ceremonial process. The identity of the dead is transformed, and this holds whether the dead become “ancestors,” or are initiated into an afterlife, or become nothing. It holds whether the survivors are religious or secular. Indeed, in the wake of death, relationships with the deceased are readjusted, as are relationships among the living. Burial practices, bereavement rituals, and mourning are thus all foundational to the making of memory, identity, and forms of communication with the dead and among the living.


iii. from priests to doctors — the work of ongoing enchantment

Philippe Ariès’s The Hour of Our Death is a monumental survey of western attitudes toward death from the early Middle Ages to the mid-19th century. First published in 1980, it traces a comparatively straight line from religious to secular death — from death as part of a cosmic, Christian story of struggle over the forces of good and evil, temptation and sin — to the modern experience of death and the dead body as profane, without transcendental import. In that telling, writes Laqueur, death “lost its lineage, its metaphysical centrality” and moved “from the domain of priests to that of physicians.”

Laqueur’s interpretation of death through the longue durée deviates from Ariès’s and other historians’ view of the Enlightenment as the moment of rupture between enchantment and disenchantment. Laqueur instead argues,

[E]nlightenment controversies over burial would not be determined primarily by debates about the immanence of the divine in particular spaces or anxieties about idolatry or about maintaining the integrity of any particular Christian but, rather, about creating new spaces where new forms of enchantment could flourish.

In their materiality and through the relationship of the living to that materiality across millennia, the dead shaped the shifting forces of religious tradition, secularism, democratic values, and individualism in daily life. Enchantment did not disappear, as Ariès and others would have it. The work of the dead reinvented enchantment in, and for, subsequent eras, at the same time as the dead body became “biological,” the critical site for the scientific examination of life. Yet,

Science did not, in fact, end up in exclusive command over death and the dead body. The dead did not become secular. History, memory, and politics, with the deep time of the dead as their resource, created a new enchantment of the dead. And the old did not disappear either. The living shared the deep historical intuition that, whatever they might actually believe about bodies, the soul, or the afterlife — the range of views that could be spoken widened considerably in the late eighteenth century — Diogenes’ views remained incompatible with culture. Somewhere between 1700 and the early nineteenth century, the work of the dead in modernity was put on a new foundation through a vertiginous number of new and newly reconfigured rituals and practices.


iv. necrogeography: the old and new work of burial

The Work of the Dead is organized into three broad analytic sections: burial practices, naming, and cremation. Most of the book is devoted to the long history (a thousand years, more or less) of churchyard burials: the slow evolution from the rightness and ordinariness of church burial — bodies deposited together in crowded, unmarked graves under church floors and in churchyards, dumped and layered on top of one another over many hundreds of years — to the new material practices surrounding the corpse during the Enlightenment and in the centuries that followed, when “death came to be understood differently than it had been before.” Anticlerical sentiment gained ascendance in these years. At the same time, as cities grew, dead bodies accumulated at an ever faster rate, and the smell of rotting bodies became a threat to the moral and social order. Churchyards failed to meet demand “because the world into which the churchyard was born was irrevocably changed in the industrial age.” In addition, romantic attitudes came to link gardens, nature, and the classical mythology of Arcadia and Elysium to the sanitized resting places of the dead.

In general, the living demanded and, incrementally, acquired new spaces for their dead; in these spaces, new attitudes could flourish: whether about public hygiene (which were not based on medical knowledge); or about death as restful, joyous repose; or about memorialization through individual graves. Laqueur is careful to point out,

There is no single problem or process that accounts for both the demise of the old regime and the specific nature and success of the new one. The old regime did not fall in one swoop; it persisted both institutionally and in the imagination for a very long time; the churchyard on the ground and of the mind lives still. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, a new necrogeography and a new kind of landscape had come into being, both in Europe and in its empires.

In short, the rising influence of secular civic life with its infrastructures of record-keeping and public health, along with emerging forms of sentimental expression, enabled this profound material and cultural shift. Laqueur’s detailed stories enable us to see “the work of the dead” in action as it were, sustaining the old and forging the new.

The story of Voltaire’s death, burial, and reburial exemplifies precisely this cataclysmic shift from old to new. By the time Voltaire, icon of the Enlightenment, was on his deathbed in 1778, the old regime’s grip on ordinary life had long since loosened. The issue, Laqueur emphasizes, was no longer whether a civilization could be built without religion as its foundation. Nor was it whether religion mattered to the dying and the dead. Rather, the matter at hand, of international interest, was how the “great enemy of religious superstition [would] die” and what would become of his body. The Church in old-regime France still controlled the place of burial, and every body had a right to be buried in its own parish. “The dying Voltaire,” Lacquer tells us, “presented real political problems to his friends and enemies as well as a challenge to the Christian dramaturgy of dying well.” Though the man would not renounce his anticlerical views, in his deathbed confession he apparently compromised just enough to not be thrown to the dogs or buried in an anonymous pit — a fate he feared. Still, he would not upset his friends, whose goal it was to “outwit the priests and have M. Voltaire enjoy all the ceremonials they thought his due, rather perhaps as a citizen than as a Christian.” Before the Church could deny him a proper burial, his nephew and friends secretly stole Voltaire’s body and buried it in the village parish churchyard. Thirteen years later, after the revolution, his remains were placed in a regal sarcophagus worthy of ancient Rome and paraded through the streets of Paris to be buried in the newly completed Pantheon, where they were made sacred to a new nation.

The story doesn’t end there. Apparently, in 1822, authorities hid Voltaire’s coffin — considered an embarrassment to the Church. Stories alleging theft of the remains circulated. In 1897, however, his coffin was located and opened, and the remains were found to be intact. Various tales of his deathbed scene were told and retold. In some of these, he died peacefully. In others he died in agony because he did not repent. These stories mattered for at least a century: “What might have been a private negotiation aimed at assuring the dying Voltaire that he would not be thrown into a pit became the crux of one of the most important and influential political narratives of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

The Work of the Dead is full of other marvelous tales of how mortal remains have “made” the modern world. Père Lachaise, built in 1804, was the first modern cemetery. Along with other cemeteries of its type in Europe and elsewhere, it was “both a cause and a reflection of the triumph of the sacred secular.” The new cemetery emerged from the rule of reason and the architectural and landscape designs of the day. Not only was the new cemetery clean, but it was also beautiful and public, with carefully laid out trees, plants, and walks, all designed to create a sense of repose and optimism for family members, who could now be buried together. It was designed to appeal to the middle class, to tourists, and to members of any religion or none at all. The dead could thus perform new work in the service of memory and history, and of family, nation, and civil society. Enchantment moved from the grand old story of resurrection and redemption to doing the work of bolstering new forms of bourgeois life, which demanded new expressions of private feelings.


v. the work of naming the dead

“Naming the dead,” Laqueur’s next large theme, became important in the mid-19th century because naming connected the dead with the sentiments that sustained family ties, now given new forms of expression in novels, letters, and obituaries. The act of naming honored the individual dead at the same time as it showed respect for the living. Beginning with the painstaking work of identifying and then reburying the American Civil War dead, so exquisitely described by Drew Faust in This Republic of Suffering, “the demand to know, to count the names of the dead” became vitally important to increasingly self-conscious notions of identity. Indeed, Civil War counting and naming became its own ritual of caring. After such unanticipated carnage and death, parents, wives, and siblings no longer tolerated undocumented, unidentified loss and suffering. Keep in mind that, by 1865, the majority of the bereaved did not find solace in thoughts of an afterlife. The bodies, burials, and shared suffering therefore needed management and civic organization, and on a scale previously unimagined. Not only did an extraordinary amount of work go into finding, identifying, and reburying bodies, but, according to Faust, the dilemma at the heart of the Civil War was “how to grasp both the significance of a single death and the meaning of hundreds of thousands.” The answer: counting and naming. The names, by the millions, soon proliferated — during the Great War, the Soviet terror, the Holocaust, and other mass deaths of the 20th century. In a nutshell: the names of particular dead mattered, and continue to matter, because of the changing ways in which the living wanted to know, remember, and care for those who were no longer living.

The infrastructure of intimacy, especially letter writing and poetry, increased dramatically during the Great War. These new practices connected the living to the dead in a new way. Laqueur gives us a splendid example with the 75 letters written by Will Martin, a British infantry private, to his fiancée, Emily Chitticks, a farm servant. In these letters, written between the time he enlisted in August 1916 and March 1917, just before he was killed in the Battle of the Somme, the couple shared mundane news, hopes for his survival and their reunion, and their feelings for one another. When Emily learned of Will’s death, she demanded to know the exact circumstances of his demise and the location of his grave. Despite much correspondence with the War Graves Commission, it could never be found.

In 1921, she collected his letters and added a note that she wanted them to be buried with her, “just as her heart was already buried in Flanders’ Field.” After her funeral, a neighbor found the letters and gave them to the Imperial War Museum. The letter exchange, writes Laqueur,

exposes the infrastructure for these feats of the imagination: literacy, habits of letter writing, and a postal service, of course, but also a whole complex of genres — deathbed accounts in novels and other places, obituaries, ego-documentation of all sorts, poetry — that collectively sustained a new relationship of the living to the dead.

The names of the Great War dead were recorded on an unprecedented scale: “There are 557,520 names on tombstones of soldiers of the British Empire who had somehow — through the thick of battle and in most cases the perils of reburial — managed to keep their identity.” Thousands more are recorded on the monuments to that war stretching across Europe.

More recently, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the AIDS Memorial Quilt “mobilize the magic of names”; they are meant to evoke the dead themselves, even though no remains are present. Names have come to be treated as if they were bodies. Laqueur informs us that Vietnam Memorial designer Maya Lin first encountered the Thiepval Memorial of the First World War, with its listing of more than seventy thousand names, in an undergraduate class on funeral architecture. Names, Lin writes, “bring back everything someone could remember about a person.” Her arresting memorial lists 57,939 names in the chronological order of death. Like the Great War memorials, writes Laqueur, it displays “the power of the names of the dead, both in aggregate and one by one.” The objects and letters left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall attest to the power, indeed the magic, of such a list:

More than a hundred thousand objects — this is only the number collected by the National Park Service — have been left at the Vietnam monument […] funeral notices and dog tags and gifts for the dead of all sorts […] cigarettes, a motorcycle. Some gifts come with messages; some messages are left on their own: “Sorry Greg, I named my kid after you and here’s the beer we would have drunk.” “Why you did not take my life on that trail at Chu Lai I will never know,” writes a man to the name of someone whose photograph he has carried for twenty-two years. Precisely what the tens of thousands who leave these offerings think or believe is less important than the fact that they act as if they were in the presence of the dead body or, more precisely, in the presence of the dead.

The names of the dead make democratic claims on the importance of individual lives. Each one is symbolically equal in value. Their stories are worthy of record and remembrance.


vi. new preoccupations

As Laqueur notes in the afterword, “the living are endlessly inventive in finding new work for the dead.” That work has now shifted from the corpse, its naming and ashes, to the dying process itself: to how we seek to control the timing, speed, and “quality” of dying, and what we demand from medicine and the law. Very modern ideas are encoded in “the right to die,” “physician-aid-in-dying” laws, “do not resuscitate” orders, “advance directives,” and “palliative care.” Such ideas or concepts make manifest the shifts in our cultural fabric. They are joined by new and distinct forms of life and not-quite-life (persistent vegetative states, brain death), created by medical technology and now associated with dying. Those ideas and life forms stand on the key values of autonomy, choice, and personhood. They reflect the influence of the law on what has come to be known as end-of-life decision-making. They stand as well on a complex, multi-billion-dollar apparatus of high-tech medical treatment and the economic and political ethos that undergirds it — an apparatus that can, nearly always, postpone death a bit longer. Within this matrix, we still strive to do the right thing: to find the right way of dying.

Dying and death have never been natural; they have always been a cultural expression of a specific time and place. Laqueur claims that dying, now a branch of bioengineering, has come unhinged from its past. Yet the contemporary preoccupation with “dying well,” away from medical overtreatment and within communities of care, and all the efforts to make that possible, show the widespread desire, I think, for a continued space of enchantment, however defined and expressed, as we leave this life.

One additional recent event came to mind as I was reading Laqueur’s book. Shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, City of Paris archivists began gathering up the notes, poems, and drawings — tens of thousands of them — left at makeshift memorials near the sites where 130 people had died. The archivists were assisted by ordinary citizens also wanting to preserve the memories of the victims. The work of drying, disinfecting, preserving, and, in some cases, digitizing the objects is painstaking. All the items are being treated with respect and care.

Not only do names on monuments evoke the dead, so, too, do tributes left to them. The work of the dead goes on.

Dazzling in its scope, expertly researched and crafted, The Work of the Dead shows us what is important about our humanity and longings. It is also a page-turner and a terrific read.


Sharon R. Kaufman is Chair, Department of Anthropology, History and Social Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. She is the author of … And a Time to Die: How American Hospitals Shape the End of Life and Ordinary Medicine: Extraordinary Treatments, Longer Lives and Where to Draw the Line.