The Work of the Dead, with Thomas W. Laqueur [MIPodcast #51]
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. What good is a dead body? What kind of work do dead bodies do? And how have humans cared for dead bodies through the ages and why do we do it? What do dead bodies tell us about the things we value most and about the things we’re afraid of? All of us will be dead someday so these questions are relevant for everyone. Cultural historian Thomas Laqueur has dug into records both ancient and contemporary in order to answer these questions in his new book, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains.
In this episode, Laqueur joins us to tell the story of how the churchyard became the dominant resting place of the dead during the Middle Ages. And then we’ll trace the rise of the cemetery that we’re more familiar with today. We’ll also talk about why people gather the names of the dead on great lists and memorials—something ancient people seldom did. It’s Thomas Laqueur talking about The Work of the Dead on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
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BLAIR HODGES: Thomas Laqueur, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. It’s good to be with you.
THOMAS LAQUEUR: It’s good to be with you. Thank you.
HODGES: And you’re joining us today from California, right? Near the University of California, Berkeley?
LAQUEUR: Yes, I’m at my house just a mile north of campus.
HODGES: We’re talking about this really interesting book that you recently put out called The Work of the Dead. We’re talking about dead bodies, basically. Let’s start off with some current events, something that just happened in New York City. A scandal just broke out in May of this year—2016—just months after your book was published. I was interested to hear your reaction when you heard that bodies which had been donated to the New York University School of Medicine were not cremated and laid to rest in a dignified manner as the school had promised, but were instead sent to the city of New York as being “unclaimed.” And many of them were buried in mass graves at Hart Island with other unclaimed or indigent bodies. What did you think when you saw this news?
LAQUEUR: Well, I thought it was part of a contemporary story, and then as part of an even older story. So you might remember that some urns from a mental asylum in Oregon had gone missing some number of years ago. And again, some years ago, I think it was in Georgia that some cremated remains were just found leaking in a warehouse somewhere. So this in some sense a longer story of how institutions mistreat—or should I say dismiss the remains of people that perhaps they shouldn’t dismiss. They should be treated these people rather than as animals or as just detritus. And so in a way, it’s part of the story of how our culture in some sense demands of itself that everyone be treated as human. And it’s not a standard to which we always rise. But it’s standard to which we hold ourselves. And I think today, right now, issues of inequality are very much in the public eye. And issues of the treatment of the poor or in this case NYU may not be the poorest—some of them aren’t poor at all.
LAQUEUR: But of people who give themselves over to institutions and then are kind of wiped clean of their humanity. And I think that’s the issue. And I think that’s why it’s so important now. And you mentioned Hart Island. The idea of allowing people to visit Hart Island has now become important, and the city of New York is now making this possible. There are all sorts of efforts to identify over centuries’ worth of bodies there and produce lists. You can see this now online. So I think this scandal is part of a larger and longer process in which we want to insist on the humanity of the dead.
HODGES: There are deep feelings. It’s unquestioned in the reporting that this sort of thing shouldn’t happen. Nobody’s wondering, “Well, maybe it’s okay.” I mean it’s pretty well—the consensus is firm that this—
LAQUEUR: That’s right. And my book is about in some sense how natural that is and yet how strange it is.
HODGES: The New York Times article that I’ll link to on the blog quotes an anatomy professor. He spent part of his career overseeing anatomical donations at another school. He said he was “sickened” to learn what had gone on. And I immediately thought of your book when I read this quote in the New York Times. He said, “This is so out of line with common practice. The idea of it is so disrespectful. But every time you turn around, you’re going to find some people who are taking advantage of their access to the dead because they know the dead are not going to talk.”
That’s his quote. “The dead aren’t going to talk.” On the surface, everybody would agree, this is strictly true. But your book is called The Work of the Dead, and you argue in great detail that the dead are in many ways still with us. That they do in some sense speak and they actually perform work. This is going to be an unusual thing for people to wrap their heads around.
LAQUEUR: It is a weird idea; it is a weird idea. But so is of course the dead talking. St. Paul said, “The dead be silent, yet they speak.” So the idea that the dead speak—not as ghosts or as the revenant—but the dead speak in other ways to us is an idea that goes back to the biblical times. The “before.”
So what is this idea of the dead “working”? So, I’m not an idiot. I understand that bones or ashes don’t literally do work in the way that you learn in a physics class where you can put a weight on a spring and have it move something. So that’s not what I mean. What I mean though is that—And I also understand that it’s the living that do things to the dead, or don’t do things to the dead. So at NYU someone’s burying the bodies respectfully or they’re not. So that’s all pretty clear.
On the other hand, collections of dead bodies or the names of dead bodies or the ashes of dead bodies do real cultural work for us. They produce a community for us in deep time. And you have to have the dead body. In other words, if you were told at Gettysburg “hey, there are no bodies there at all under the ground,” people wouldn’t go to Gettysburg. Or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Or your family plot. Or if you learned that all of the names in your Mormon genealogies were fake. It would be a huge cultural rupture. So we need the dead to actually be there. And that’s what I mean by “the work of the dead.” And so I think of phrases like the banished poet Lorca’s line that “nowhere in the world are the dead more alive than in Spain.” And that’s the kind of thing I’m trying to get at.
HODGES: One of the things you point out too…This is kind of pushing back against the idea that, I think people may still go to Gettysburg anyway and maybe you would too. And I’m thinking of the Vietnam Memorial that doesn’t have any bodies there. You talk about this in the book that the names themselves can turn to substitutes.
LAQUEUR: Right. No, no. I take the point that you don’t always need to have bodies. And I think names are crucial. But what’s interesting to me is that people speak to these names as if they were there. It’s a bit like you’re reading to me that the dead can’t speak. Well, the dead sort of can speak. And in some sense, we know they can’t listen, but yet we think they listen. You go to the Vietnam Memorial—I was just there a few weeks ago and we see all sorts of people there talking to the dead. They’re standing in front of a name and they’re talking to the name. And they’re leaving a note at the name. Or they’re leaving a pack of cigarettes at the name. Well, you could say—you could make up all kinds of stories. But somehow, someone is believed to be present there. And there’s a communication. And the communication does cultural work. It’s tying us to someone in the past. To a grandfather, to a brother. And that’s what I mean by the—
And the collectivity of these names do something for us as a nation. So that’s what I’m getting at. It’s this, to me, at least, strange enchantment, at the same time when we understand—by “we” I mean people who are religious and not religious—that in some literal way, the dead aren’t there. They’re just not. And yet all of us believe in one fashion or another that they are there. And that’s what the book is really about.
And I want to say, this being a program in some sense about the study of religion, that we believe the dead to be there and we believe the dead do speak in some ways not irrespective of what our faith is, but cross-faith and no faith. And that was one of the discoveries of my research.
HODGES: Yes, you actually sort of put belief about the dead as actually a sort of subcategory that could include all religions, no religions—that it’s something sort of sub-religion. Not necessarily in an inferior way but—
LAQUEUR: Exactly. Not in an inferior way, but in a foundational way.
LAQUEUR: That is to say it’s the kind of feeling of all we have in the world, about which some people build religious views and some people build not religious views, but I’d say it’s foundational rather than—I think it’s what you mean by “sub.” But it’s a foundational belief of humans, is what I want to argue.
HODGES: Exactly. And you trace it back to deep time and you bring it…Your book is structured such that some of it talks about ancient history, and then the majority of the book talks about the work performed by mortal remains in Western Europe since the 18th century especially in England. But as you reach back into deep time to set the stage, you find that many thinkers have understood burial practices as one of the things that raised humans out of “nature” into “culture.”
LAQUEUR: Right. Exactly. Well, you’ve put your finger on it. I mean, all sorts of people have had what you might call origin myths, if you will, about burying the dead. So there’s this Jewish tradition in which it was birds that taught Adam and Eve about burial when Cain slew Abel. In Chinese traditions going back thousands of years, the gods gave people clan names so they could remember the dead of their clan. Some Greek thinkers thought when the ancient gods quit eating the dead, as the giants did, we came to the era of the Olympic gods and our world. The world of man. And I think you can find Native American stories like that.
So I think there’s a kind of—I wouldn’t say universal, but there’s a very wide set of origin stories in which the dead are the beginning of something human. And after all, in the biblical story it’s the coming of death. It’s basically our entry into—I mean a consequence of original sin—but it’s our entry into death which makes us human.
So that’s the kind of deep time I want to talk about. And I think Paleo-anthropologists are discovering that people very far in our history—fifty, sixty thousand years ago—seemed to have been burying. So in some sense, I want to say to be human is to care for the dead. And that’s been theorized since people started theorizing about what it was to be human, which is probably roughly a thousand before the common era and continuous up through the Enlightenment thinkers and all sorts of people who theorized about what makes us human. And I think you find this in all sorts of religious traditions.
So that’s what I’m trying to argue, the deep time part. I don’t think there is an answer to “why do we do it” in the sense of an evolutionary answer, or we do it because we’re human and that is what we’ve always done. And that’s kind of an originary moment is what I want to argue, and that’s as far down as we can get. [laughs]
HODGES: In a sense, it’s almost a circular argument but I don’t see a way around that—
LAQUEUR: —it’s a hopelessly circular argument.
HODGES: —yeah, by definition, it’s like, the human is; this marks that transition.
LAQUEUR: Yes what I’m trying to suggest is that I don’t think there’s much to be added by sort of Darwinian “just so” stories as well: We do it because it produces group solidarity. Well okay. It produces group solidarity, but do we think there’s a gene for it? There’s a selection for it? I mean possibly. But I’m not sure that gives you a lot better answer than the circular answer. Then the question is why does that get selected? And then you have another set of questions. There’s an expression as turtles all the way down?
HODGES: Yeah, I was thinking that.
LAQUEUR: At some point—
HODGES: It’s corpses all the way down. [laughs]
LAQUEUR: It’s corpses all the way down! Right. Exactly.
HODGES: That’s Thomas W. Laqueur. He’s the Helen Fawcett professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s written a number of books on human body and gender and religion. His latest book is The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains.
So almost two and a half thousand years ago, just before the rise of Christianity, there’s a philosopher called Diogenes and he made an unusual declaration that you begin the book with, and return to it again and again as sort of the minority position on the dead.
HODGES: So he tried to set an example that humans have been resisting, and resisting quite easily, ever since. Cicero records this story. He says “Diogenes the cynic ordered himself to be thrown anywhere without being buried. And when his friends replied, ‘What, to the birds and beasts?’ And Diogenes said, ‘By no means. Place my staff near me that I may drive them away.’ And his friends said, ‘How can you do that for you will not perceive them?’ And Diogenes says, ‘How am I then injured by being torn by those animals if I have no sensation?’” So he says here “just toss my body over the wall.”
HODGES: [laughing] How has that shaken out over time?
LAQUEUR: Well, everyone says “right on Diogenes. Very good point.” And the Church Fathers said “well of course, he’s right. We don’t believe in all these silly things that the Pagans believed in where it makes a difference where you’re buried. If you’re not buried in the right place, your shades will wander the earth and you won’t come to peace. We don’t believe this kind of stuff. We Christians believe that wherever your body is, God can resurrect us from the ashes.”
But on the other hand, it’s important to be buried near a saint. And it actually matters. Or it’s important to be buried in the churchyard. Or some other stories of where to be buried. Or every religion has a different version of the story. So everyone will say “of course, it’s just a dead body, and of course God can do whatever God wants to do in terms of raising the dead or in terms of transmigrating of a soul. That’s the point of having a very powerful God. On the other hand, we don’t live with it.”
So that’s what you’re saying, everyone has said Diogenes has a point. And it avoids idolatry. It avoids trying to think we’re bribing God by somewhat doing something with the dead and so forth. On the other hand, we as humans bury our dead. And we’ve never not been able to do it. So Diogenes is my foil because over two and a half centuries, it’s this deeply acultural view. And after all, you have to remember that Diogenes was the most famous bad boy of antiquity.
HODGES: Yeah. [laughs]
LAQUEUR: I mean Plato thought Diogenes was sort of Socrates gone crazy. What he means by that is that, well Socrates was against accepting what he took to be the irrational conventions of society. So Socrates got into a lot of trouble in Athens for corrupting the young. But when they asked him to take poison, he didn’t escape. He said “okay, I get that we live with a certain culture of law and I have to follow the law.” And he took the poison and Socrates in some sense acted like a man within culture.
Diogenes takes it a step further and says “to hell with culture.” So he was the guy that famously lived in a barrel. He was a street person, right? That’s the guy that lived in a barrel. When Alexander the Great came by and says, “What can I do for you?” he said, “You can get out of my light.”
HODGES: Yeah, you’re blocking the sun.
LAQUEUR: Yeah, you’re blocking the sun! He was a forger. And he’s called the cynic or the dog philosopher because he lived like a dog, which is living in nature. So Diogenes, this is an explosively bad boy, dog position, which everyone says, “Well yeah dogs are good living in nature but we live in culture!” So that’s why Diogenes is so central to me. Because it really is about living in the world with our fellow man rather than living like a dog.
HODGES: So Diogenes comes up again and again as sort of the counterpoint to all of the effort and time that goes into care of the body. Because rather than just tossing bodies over the wall, the things that humans do with their dead involve a lot of labor, a lot of time, a lot of attention, a lot of care.
HODGES: And when things don’t go well, like we’ve seen in this recent example in New York City, people are upset by that. So part two of your book, once we get past the deep time stuff, shifts to more recent times. You’re looking especially at the rise of the Christian graveyard, the church graveyard, and then the later emergence of the more cosmopolitan cemeteries. So you trace development from church graveyard to cemetery.
There’s a sweeping paragraph at the beginning that talks about the specific ways people put bodies into the ground—They put them horizontally, facing different directions. What are some examples from different cultures? One thing that struck me was, they don’t find examples of people burying someone standing straight up or on their heads or anything like that.
LAQUEUR: [laughing] I mean it’s a joke when you’ve seen people on their heads. It’s what you do in strange places. Swift talks about how people will be buried on their heads. It’s what weird people do.
So what I wanted to say in general is that all peoples do something with their dead, and they do it in a careful way. And the reason I’ve been more focused, as you say, mostly on Western Europe though not entirely, and in England, is that the dead do particular work in very specific places.
So in other words, antiquity cared for the dead—the names of the dead. But they cared for it in different ways than your church [the LDS church] cares for the names of the dead. And so if one is going to explain this—when I say your story or the ancient story—it’s explained in a particular place. So what I want to try to do with the structure of the book is that we can make these general arguments and I say, well let’s see how they work somewhere. And I happened to know mostly about Western Europe.
But I think someone could make this about how the Chinese bury their dead. They don’t bury them east to west, but they bury them in a relationship to certain geomantrically produced lines. And there are specialists who go around and help people know where to place the dead. So you don’t just put them anywhere in the fields. You put them in certain places and the people will tell you which kind of places to put them in.
And so my story is of the church or the cemetery, which you asked me about. It’s that in some sense there was a churchyard, if you want to say, before there was a church. Which is to say the ancient Christians came to bury their dead around the martyrs. And they became martyr churches. And they were in warm climates, this was around the Mediterranean, they didn’t have roads, there were sometimes just walls around a grave and then around other graves. So the early Christians worshiped very specifically in the graveyard which then became a church. And then a building came to be build there in the fifth, sixth century depending on where you are.
So the churchyard and the church grows out of what I call a “necrogeography.” A geography of dead bodies. So rather than having a dead body be outside the city…What came to happen is that first, these martyr sites were outside cities. But then people started moving the bones of the martyrs inside cities. And then churches were built around the east and then more of the dead came to be gathered around them. And the churchyard became the center of the city in Europe, rather than being at the periphery of the city.
So that’s the kind of story I want to tell. And so that churchyard, and most things, in the middle of the city, is that community of Christians over time. This is where we are. Walk in to church where are our ancestors? They’re there.
HODGES: This is what really surprised me. It seemed as though you made a case that church… Even churches today—so chapels, buildings, set apart for worship and this sort of thing, can be traced genealogically back to burial practices. And this is because early Christianity had “house churches” where people would meet in homes and things like that.
LAQUEUR: That’s very early Christianity.
HODGES: They didn’t have their own separate church buildings. And it seemed like you’re saying that burial grounds, they would be buried around a martyr or something. And then a building would be constructed there eventually. And so church buildings today seem to be a product of the graveyard rather than the graveyard coming to the church.
LAQUEUR: Well, that’s exactly right. But after a while, of course, you could do it both ways. You could build a church in a village or in the city, and then move the dead to that village. So Saint Ambrose built the church in Milan and then he moved the body of a martyr, right? I mean we’re talking the late third, early fourth centuries when these modern churches came to be built at the edge of cities. And then the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh century when martyr’s bodies came to be moved inside of the cities.
But yes, you’re right. It’s a good point that church begins as a place for the dead. And the interesting thing to me, which I didn’t expect, is that it appears to be the case, even when people want to start arguing “it’s crazy to have a church around the dead.” So in the Reformation, they said “well, of course you don’t need to be around the dead person. That’s rank superstition and it’s because the church makes money off of having us do all this stuff, terrible, stupid. But does anything change? It does not. People keep burying around churches—
HODGES: Inside churches, too, yeah—
LAQUEUR: —Inside churches, too, big time.
HODGES: Under pews, right?
LAQUEUR: Under the—And more than before.
LAQUEUR: And so you say, well really? Why is it you purport to believe that it makes no difference. And the interesting thing to me too is, it’s true of real serious Protestants, they also—these bodies come to mean something. So the Wesleyan Preacher Whitefield is buried in Newburyport near Boston. And Revolutionary War soldiers would go by his body and sort of rub his skull as a way of gaining some sort of blessing for their success in battle. Boy, if you press these Puritans about what the theology is, they would start blithering! [laughs] It’s kind of crazy.
HODGES: And Calvin wanted to be buried in an unmarked grave…
LAQUEUR: And so did Luther! He said “bury me in a meadow.” None of that happened! But when you finally got cemeteries, it’s for different sets of reasons. So you’re absolutely right. The genealogy of the church is the dead. So first there were the dead, then there was the church, and then once you have that established, then you could build a church and reverse the order, building the church, move in the dead. But the church and the dead were intimately connected right to the 18th century. Everywhere. Not just in Western Europe, but Eastern Europe and in Northern Europe, and basically—Yeah.
HODGES: And I thought it was interesting too, you talked about the origin of the term “cemetery.” And cemeteries—we’ll talk about a little bit later on—sort of became the more pluralistic less church-connected burial place. But originally, cemeteria—I don’t know how to pronounce the Greek, but it referred to a dorm, a sleeping place. And early Christian Fathers talked about in that sense. That Christians were sleeping in Christ. And so the cemetery, the dorm, the sleeping place, that’s where that title comes from. So even that is…What later became disconnected from churches originated—
LAQUEUR: In churches.
HODGES: In churches, yeah.
LAQUEUR: Right. Exactly right. And well, a lot of these things have these interesting origins. I mean the Mormon church’s interest in names obviously has some connection to the Medieval church’s collection of names in its monasteries. I mean the names you prayed for. And obviously it’s a different theology. But the idea that a place of worship collects names is a long-standing tradition.
HODGES: And we’ll get back to that too. But I want to talk first about what these early church graveyards were like. Today, we go into a cemetery and you’ve got nicely ordered rows. You’ve got headstones. A lot of cemeteries have restrictions on what headstones can look like. But what were these early ones like and how did they decide where to place bodies and this sort of thing?
LAQUEUR: Well, we don’t know what the really early ones look like because we don’t have pictures. And so in that sense, the first time we started to have really pictures or engravings of churchyards are not until 16th and 17th century. So in that sense, it’s hard to know. But what we know about is because we do the archaeology of them. So what we know is from archaeology.
We know that there were very few headstones. We know that the bodies are oriented very precisely with the orientation of the church. That the church is a very precisely oriented east-west. Very precisely. People have looked into this in terms of astronomical calculations. And the churches really were oriented east-west. And the graves were oriented with the axis of the church. So the whole structure is east-west. We know that.
We also know that it’s a very small space. And that these churches were around for a very long time. Some of them 8th, 9th centuries, you know, a long time. And so we know that people kept being buried in the same ground, and there were hundreds and thousands of bodies there. So it was very lumpy. And very disorganized. And we know that periodically, every few hundred years, people would just level it. And the bones would be put in a charnel house. Now some Christian traditions—the Greek orthodox, would do secondary burials. They would dig them up after a shorter amount of time. But in most of the west, the western church, they would just level it.
So archaeologists will look at these finds, they’ll find layers of bones, scraping, bones, scraping. And sometimes three and four meters above the original level of the soil. So they’re not at all like the cemetery with these neat roads and so forth. They’re kind of a mess. And by the time we started getting pictures of these in the 17th century and then a lot in the 18th century, they’re really messy and everyone’s always complaining that they’re messy. And even in the Middle Ages we have some evidence, constant evidence that there are pigs grazing there, there are sheep grazing there, people are selling stuff in the churchyards. People are familiar with the dead. It’s: “This is our gang!”
HODGES: Your parish church would be where you are buried.
LAQUEUR: Absolutely. And to not be buried in the parish church was the worst possible punishment. And we now know because a former student wrote a really interesting book about this. For example, the church in 16th-century France, the Roman church, got into debt collecting and running these courts. And one of their punishments says “well, if you don’t pay up on this debt, it’s excommunication for you.” Boy, that got people to pay! And you think it’s ridiculous, and obviously it was abuse and people made a lot about how that was abuse. But there you are! If you don’t kneecap them, you keep them out of the churchyards. So being tossed out of the churchyard, it was horrible. It’s like this New York story only much worse because everyone you know is in the churchyard.
HODGES: One of the precipitating factors that you identify is, you traced the shift from what you call the “old regime” which was centered around the churchyard to the “new regime” which was focused on the cemetery. So there’s this question of who’s in and who’s out.
HODGES: Heretics and people like this. There were some very famous cases. Give an example of a famous case—
LAQUEUR: Well, the most famous case is Voltaire. So the great anti-clerical philosopher of the Enlightenment, and maybe the most famous Enlightenment thinker philosophe. And he was, all his life, afraid of being tossed into the ditch. As a young man, he took up the cause of an opera singer who because she was an opera singer wasn’t buried in the churchyard. And he wrote about this and took it to be a scandal. So when he was dying, a negotiation took place about “so what would he have to do to actually get into the churchyard?” And it turns out that almost every major philosophe had this kind of negotiation with the church. They were mostly in France. France had only one place to be buried which was the Catholic Church and so they were endlessly negotiating this. And so, okay, would you have to take your last communion? Would you have to have a confession? Would you have to renounce your views? What exactly would you have to do?
HODGES: And they really focused on the deathbed. Like everybody wanted to know—
HODGES: —did he plead for mercy on his death bed and renounce his Atheism or yeah?
LAQUEUR: Then you were fine. You might come here— So the question with Voltaire was did he… What kind of death did he have and did he comply? And some say he didn’t and some say… The negotiations fell apart. Basically what happened is, his friends that negotiated with the higher-ups, that he would have to do a certain amount of minimal stuff, and then the local clergyman wasn’t in on this negotiation. They came in and tried push him to do some more and he refused, or didn’t refuse depending on what you say. But in any case, they weren’t gonna bury his body. And his friends then sneak the body away and bury it privately in a monastic church area which his nephew had had some access to. But this is a huge controversy and news about it was translated into many languages and there were scores of pamphlets on this subject. But he wasn’t the only one.
And then of course there was the question of Protestants in a Catholic country. So if you died as a Protestant in France you were in trouble. So Rousseau was the most famous of these Protestants. Rousseau, one of the most famous authors in the eighteenth century, couldn’t be buried decently. So a friend buried him in a garden which was like the garden in one of his novels and his tomb then became a kind of pilgrimage sight. But ordinarily merchants who were there, where would they be buried? What about British merchants in Lisbon who died in the pork trade and the cherry trade, and so forth. And so people said “Look we should be more open.” And the example was in the east. In Gujarat on the Indian coast all sorts of them were buried together. You didn’t have to be religious. Muslims were buried there and Jews were buried there and Christians were buried there. And that’s what we should be doing in Europe, say they. And the cemetery is this just kind of cosmopolitan place like they have in the east in these commercial centers.
HODGES: It’s really fascinating how you trace this because there’s a lot of different factors, and you bring in a lot of different stories from history that sort of showed the decline of the old regime. So we’ve talked about practical considerations like space. So that was a problem. We talked about religious questions, there were public controversies. And people started questioning, “why is the church…” They were uncomfortable with the church being able to arbitrate these things.
LAQUEUR: Right. Exactly.
HODGES: And not just for celebrities but also there was… in the 1880’s or 1870’s to 1880 a very public controversy over an unbaptized child.
LAQUEUR: Absolutely. Well I mean every— again every country has a different story about this. I mean the American case, sadly, could black people be buried in white people cemeteries? Can black veterans be buried with white veterans? And so it’s all about what kind of community… Can Jews who have been cremated be buried in a Jewish cemetery?
So some version of that kind of story is all about gate-keeping. But you asked about the British case. So Britain as you know has a national church. The Church of England. And the national church… So each of these churchyards are under the care of a clergyman and there are sort of general rules as to who gets into a churchyard. And so the answer is baptism. But how you understand baptism could be anyone’s argument. So everyone historically has understood, well baptism is anyone saying “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” It can be with sand, it can be with water… possibly sand, it can be done by a lay person., it was generally thought, and so forth. But some of the Church of England clergymen said “Well, no. The only proper baptism, the only real Christian is people who have been baptized by us. Not by Methodists, not by Baptists, not by Presbyterians, by us.” So they excluded those people.
Well then it becomes the case, “well what about Baptist kids who aren’t baptized?” I mean until they’re older. Well some people argued “Look, the churchyard really isn’t belonging just to this theocratically run church. It belongs to the nation. It’s the nation’s burial place. It belongs to the parish.” And some of the most conservative clergymen says “No. If we actually acknowledge that it belonged to the parish as a whole rather than the Christian community parish, we’re basically giving up on the idea of a unified national church and of the union of church and state.”
And that’s what happened. In the late nineteenth century pretty much every country gives up on the idea of a church that’s intimately bound with the state. So the church… Theocracy probably died or— depends on when you believe in theocracy ended— but losing the monopoly on burial places in England really is the end of the old—definitive end of the old theocratic regime if it didn’t happen before.
So that’s the interesting thing. So that’s that case but in some sense you could argue in America that letting black people be buried with white people is sort of the ultimate end of segregation. So each of— That’s what I mean by “work of the dead.” The dead kind of put a line under that. No! We are all part of this country!
HODGES: Yeah. That’s the cultural work that they—
LAQUEUR: It’s the cultural work that they do and it’s pretty important.
HODGES: Another thing we haven’t touched on yet that made a big difference—So we see the old regime sort of cracking. There are problems with this. You’re gonna need something to replace or supplement—
LAQUEUR: Right, right, right, right…
HODGES: We’ll get to that, but there is one other factor that became huge and that was changing ideas about health. And some of these were just downright silly. Talk about some of the concerns people had about health.
LAQUEUR: Well it’s interesting. You know, the usual— if you ask— if you look at our textbooks, why were cemeteries created? They say “Well, because everyone realizes that churchyards were dirty and terrible” and so forth. Well, in real life, they’re actually not so dirty. I mean, as I’ve said, I think I said—and not just me. Doctors tell us any given thousand live bodies is more dangerous than any given thousand dead bodies.
HODGES: You wouldn’t think that. Even today you wouldn’t think that—
LAQUEUR: —You would not think that but, you know you’re more likely—I mean they don’t smell that good but—
HODGES: The smell’s what does it.
LAQUEUR: The smell was terrible and you believe that anything that smells so bad it has to be—make you sick. But it doesn’t. Now that doesn’t mean of course that if you’re in an Ebola epidemic you wanna hang around with your excrement, I mean with Ebola, there’s certain special diseases which were dangerous, but on the average, if you were around in the middle of nineteenth century and you had a choice between walking in with a thousand dead people and a thousand living people, the rational thing would have been to choose dead people. And a lot of people even got that in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, people were arguing as you say, all sort of amazing stuff about all these miasmas and things that were pouring out of dead bodies and causing them be sick.
So I interpret this as not that these guys were lying but in some sense it’s about who controls smell, as I put it. In other words, the clergy used to control the dead. And in our society by and large, public officials and doctors control the dead. You can’t bury someone these days without— who dies unattended—without a coroner. Cemetery—All these rules about what… embalming of this and that, which is by medicine. It’s not really medical. I mean they don’t… It’s just… That’s… ours… It’s an important part of who get—who runs— I mean the— who runs these deep issues in our culture. And by and large it’s doctors. I mean, the medical profession, public health. So what I want to argue is—again it’s another part of the work of the dead—It’s not because the dead are dangerous that we get cemeteries. It’s because the dead are so powerful that doctors wanna have—broadly speaking, doctors, science wants to have dominion over the dead. So it’s part of the story of getting dominion over the dead. And then they kind of make up these stories. They don’t consciously make them up but they know they’re not quite right because their friends are telling them “Look it’s just not a good argument.” They said “Well never mind.” [laughs]
HODGES: Yeah [laughs]. It’s so interesting. I mean one of the most striking parts of the book is where—I don’t remember if you make the argument or if you’re citing someone—but there’s the argument that people were saying “Okay, let’s just say there are this many people that died in England in a year. And here’s how much they would weigh. There is this much human waste produced by living humans every year and it’s exponentially larger and much more dangerous. But we—
LAQUEUR: That’s me. That’s me—
HODGES: —they focused on the dead.
LAQUEUR: —and they’re perfectly willing to stick around with the junk, the excrement in the river which causes cholera, but they’ll go crazy about these small numbers of dead bodies. And I say “well how is that possible?” It’s not hypocrisy exactly. It’s part of this wanting—wanting to hold on to the dead to do this important cultural work of reestablishing the order of society. We’re no longer a society under a priesthood. We’re a society under a rational, social, scientific, biological regime. That’s what it was thought to be modern. You know, and the dead help you be modern. And that’s just like…
HODGES: Yeah so— Exactly. So how do we get…
LAQUEUR: That’s again, a version of the dead—the work of the dead.
HODGES: That’s Thomas Laqueur, a professor at UC Berkeley whose book is called The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains.
So how do we get from the churchyard to the cemetery? All these factors we’ve talked about— there are religious questions, people frustrated with the church, there are economic considerations there, the church was being paid money—
LAQUEUR: There were aesthetic considerations.
HODGES: Yep. There were practical considerations like space, there were health considerations. Now while all this is going on, these factors led to the rise of cemeteries, which were separated from graveyards. So as we talk about the rise of the cemetery, this will give us an opportunity to talk about what this new regime is. How it differed from the old regime—which as you mentioned earlier also persisted. People are still buried in churchyards and there are still examples of that, but the cemetery came up. So let’s talk about how the cemetery came to be envisioned. The Elysian Fields and this type of thing.
LAQUEUR: Right. That’s an interesting story. I mean again, one of the things about the book that I kind of like and some people might be frustrated by is that I don’t…It’s never just one story. It’s never just one story. And so the story I wanted to tell is that look, let’s first just think, how do we think about places the dead? Well the churchyard everyone has in their minds, but I want something different. Well, thinking about antiquity, it’s the Elysian Fields. Some beautiful, rural, space of where the happy dead congregate. So where does this come from?
Well no one builds a free standing mausoleum anywhere in Europe for the better part of two millennia. And then the Earl of Carlyle builds the first free standing monument in the fields of his castle and he calls it the Elysian Fields. And his daughter writes a book about—a poem about the Elysian Fields. And then the king of Denmark decides that… there’s a tomb that he found in one of his castles and he decides to put a lot of fake graves around this park and call it Elysian Fields though there are no actual bodies there. So now we start thinking of tombstones in Elysian Fields. And then Rousseau gets buried in a garden. And then French revolution comes around and people destroying tombs everywhere and a man named Lenoir starts collecting these, and he sets up a museum of Elysian Fields in which takes mines from all over France and puts them in these fields. So now we have—and gardens of tombs become sort of popular.
So all of the sudden now, rather than imagining tombs of the dead in churchyards, people started imagining them in the country side or in fields. And then again in the French Revolution where there’s this anti-clericalism and other things going on, someone says “okay well just—instead of just imagining them and having a few aristocrats, let’s just build Elysian Fields!” So they build Elysian Fields. And they hire landscape architects to do it. And you start getting the cemetery as actually a planned space. So…
HODGES: Landscape architecture itself grew directly out of that.
LAQUEUR: Landscape architecture and cemeteries grew, absolutely, together. And in America of course the most famous landscape architects like Olmsted who gave us Central Park also gave us the cemetery in Cincinnati and in Oakland. So that the same guys do this.
So if you look at plans of cemeteries they’re… it may trivialize it to say they’re theme parks for the dead, but cemeteries have different themes. In other words, Boston’s Mount Auburn was a bird sanctuary and they wanted a place that was really kind of nature-y. And Paris wanted something slightly more classical. And the Highgate in London looks slightly more Egyptian, and in Brazil they thought “well let’s get something like Père Lachaise,” and in another place they said “let’s get something more like Mount Auburn.” And some people started building these very specific spaces which were supposed to have historical allusions. Gettysburg was meant to have connection to how dead were buried in the Battle of Marathon. Planned space.
So cemeteries become planned spaces while churchyards grow up organically over hundreds and thousands of years and weren’t planned. They were just bases around the church. So there’s an aesthetic story as you say. There’s a story of space needs. There’s a story of clericalism and religious plurality. And all these together come producing the cemetery.
HODGES: I was so surprised to discover that these early Elysian Fields and these examples were built… they built cemeteries before they ever put any bodies in them.
LAQUEUR: Absolutely right. No, they had the idea, and you know in England they were commercial. So some would join stock companies. “Well look, okay, we’re gonna buy stock in this and we’re gonna have these Elysian Fields,” and the prosperous people say “we’ll buy nice tombs and we’ll sell sort of hidden spaces to people who take care of the bodies of the poor. And we’ll make money,” and they did make money. For a while it wasn’t a good business model over the years because you ran out of resources, that is out of land and they went broke after some number of decades.
HODGES: But instead of the church getting paid by the city or wherever to bury bodies of the poor and so forth, that money started going to these joins stock companies who—
LAQUEUR: Exactly, exactly.
HODGES: And another thing about these cemeteries is they… the idea of them turned much more into places of memory, of contemplation, and this is reflected on engravings. How did some of the engravings differ between the churchyards and the…
LAQUEUR: You started…Well first of all there weren’t so many tombs and churchyards you wouldn’t remember them. I mean we think of churchyards now as having a lot of—Now they’re preserved and we see a fair number of them but compare, there were bodies there. There were very few tombstones.
Well I mean I think what I say in a nutshell is that I’m saying the new god becomes history and memory. Which is to say that we have a lot more engravings—for example willow trees and families under the willow tree, mourning and thinking about the dead person replaces crucifix and other kind of religious imagery. And also the dead are gathered in the interest of some version of history or community that’s outside of the religious world. It isn’t necessarily outside the religious world, not everywhere. I mean but think of Gettysburg, the national cemetery, the cemetery had to represent the nation and the nation’s pluralist thinking. And Lincoln himself—probably wasn’t an Atheist, but he was not a believer particularly and the historical…the illusion again is Marathon. So just like the Greeks stopped the Persians so here the Union stopped the Confederacy and saves civilization, and that’s what we’re reproducing.
So what’s interesting to me is that how people understood these places. There are kind of engravings, that people started collecting more things like bits of hair, other sort of things like bearing things with the bodies. There’s a whole world of individual family memory and of— you might call it historical memory which gets to be gathered together. And the cemetery, all sorts of new communities are there. There’s the Freemasons. There’s the Elks of Ameri— there’s all sorts of people. And in Europe, Jews get buried next to Christian cemetery, a little special section. So this is now no longer a Christian community. It’s a cosmopolitan community of all sorts of people which is made up of all these different communities. So that’s the kind of argument that I want to make.
HODGES: And we’re b— I’m telling you we’re barely scratching the surface. The book has so much more here. We’re talking to Thomas Laqueur. He teaches and researches history at UC Berkeley. We’re talking about his cultural history of mortal remains, it’s called The Work of the Dead.
Let’s talk about names of the dead. The section of the book on names of the dead is fascinating because you trace the rise in the importance of names. Tracking the names of the dead, and the places where the dead are buried, or commemorating the dead by having a place for their name on a monument, or putting that name on a gravestone or whatever—this wasn’t a common practice throughout most of human history. You bring up this short story written by a Serbian writer. A story called “Encyclopedia of the Dead.” It’s about a strange sect—
HODGES: —that has “undertaken the difficult and praiseworthy task of recording everything that can be recorded concerning those who have completed their mortal journey…”
LAQUEUR: Do you know where we go that?
HODGES: …Yeah. [laughs]
LAQUEUR: From you guys! [laughs]
HODGES: [laughing] Yes! Mormonism. And you have this really interesting couple of pages on this. How does the LDS church figure into your analysis on names of the dead?
LAQUEUR: Well, I mean I knew about this, there were students and of course you know they’re the great genealogists, and so I knew about them. But look, I… I wanted sort of— if you wanna put the Mormon church, in a sense, and historicize them, you say the moment when they got interested—the creation of this church in the nineteenth century is exactly the same time when all sorts of other people got interested in names, too. In collecting the names of the dead.
So that’s what I wanted to say. And again it gets back to my general point, it’s not that I want to say that everyone does it for the same reason. The Morm— I mean obviously the whole theology about why the Mormons do it, which is different than why military cemeteries do it and why Père Lachaise does it. I mean so but it’s part—I wanna try to say it’s part of the same cultural moment. And it’s a moment when, I wanna argue, every life ends up worth having an end that’s recorded. And not recording the end of a life—which means not having a name—is thought to be… sort of unbearable and culturally unacceptable.
And that’s what I take to be a foundational point. And on that foundation different people record—make different—have different stories. And that’s the argument I wanna make. And so I try to say in history why is it that three to five percent of the people in a churchyard have names in the early nineteenth century and forty, fifty percent have it in the late nineteenth century? And no one cares about anonymity and then all of a sudden they do care about anonymity. That’s why there’s no one’s names recorded in Waterloo and everyone’s recorded in the Somme a hundred years later.
HODGES: And just to interject, you mentioned Père-Lashez— Lachaise? Just so people know that.
LAQUEUR: Père Lachaise.
HODGES: Père Lachaise yeah. That’s the cemetery in Paris that became a template for a lot of cemeteries, kind of the first big cemeteries.
HODGES: Exactly. So one of the things you mentioned about the LDS use of names is, the theology behind it is to perform ordinances on behalf of the dead so Latter-day Saints want they have those names. Now you notice the difficulty there in terms of just sheer numbers of people who have existed versus names that can even possibly be found. And there’s been an increase since around 1500 in names being recorded in general, because the state began being interested in names.
LAQUEUR: Yes, yes. Absolutely. Well, I mean it’s no accident as I learned from your works of your own church that that’s when the great search of names happens. I mean that’s my evidence from when I cite you guys. And that’s as you say because the state consolidates these sort of monarchies and others…Centralization of power, efforts regain central power after the Feudal ages and part of that is keeping track of people. So the Romans had their famous censuses and then they don’t have a census in the sixteenth century but every society is keep—western and eastern ones start demanding baptismal registers which wasn’t demanded before, there are some but they start demanding them.
And then as more people get incorporated into the state they too have to get names. So as Jews become citizens, Jews get names. And as everyone gets recorded people start getting names that would have to be staple. So it’s no longer George from over there, but it’s George Smith. And that’s mandated by the state. So we actually know this is his name and we actually reversed what counts as a name. In other words, George is the Christian name that’s the Adamic name and Smith is the surnom or extra name, which doesn’t matter very much. And in many common law countries it’s easy to change. You can’t change the name that actually matters, Blair, because that’s the name God gave you originally and that’s not changeable.
So all that is adjudicated and promulgated by the state. You’re absolutely right. So there’s one track. So the state starts making sure everyone has a name that has a certain form, and conforms to that form, and increasingly, by the eighteenth century you can’t just name your kid anything. They’d say which name that you could use. And then in addition to that, there is sort of the rise of—I wanna argue—the rise of a literature in which the names of ordinary people matter. Which is to say the novel. So unlike in Shakespeare’s plays where the ordinary people are just named Will or some first name, people get names. And they get them in a lot more places and they get them in all sorts of things.
And so the “thickening,” I want to call it, the culture of the name, develops in the nineteenth century and I wanna say the Latter-day Saints are part of that story… they’re a product of the story of this thickening of names, of a democratic church and a democratic society. So I try to place your story into a larger historical story of names.
HODGES: It is really fun. Sometimes when I read a book I’ll go check the index to see if Mormonism is mentioned. But on this one I deliberately didn’t because I wanted to be surprised, and then sure enough there it was. So it was really—
LAQUEUR: [Laughing] Well you can’t do names without Mormonism, right?
HODGES: [laughs] That’s cool. That’s Tom Laqueur. He’s the Helen Fawcettprofessor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s written histories of things like Sunday school, histories of the human body and gender. His latest book is called The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. We’ll take a brief break and come back for the conclusion of the interview.
HODGES: We’re back with Thomas Laqueur, a professor of history at the University of California Berkeley and we’re talking about his book The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains.
There’s quite a bit of information in the book about war and names of the dead. Instead of covering all of it, let’s talk about one particular thing. You tell a personal story about your own grandfather that involves Judaism, Germany, and World War II that’s sort of symbolic of the importance of burial practices and how communities reckon with histories. This is a World War II situation and you went to this cemetery and found… and saw your grandfather’s grave.
LAQUEUR: Well, what really happened is—you’re compressing a little bit of this history, and I understand why—So what happened was that my parents were German Jews who were forced to leave because of Hitler. And my grandfather, who I never knew—he died before Hitler, he died in 1927—was a very passionate German nationalist, as were many German Jews. And he was buried in a very spiffy beautiful cemetery in Hamburg called Ohlsdorf. And I knew what his grave looked like because my grandmother who escaped and who lived with us had a picture of it on her desk. So this grave sort of meant something to me growing up. And in 1995 I visited Germany for the first time and my wife said “Look, you should take some of your father’s ashes.” My father never returned to Germany. “You should take some of your father’s ashes and put them—mix them with the ashes of your grandfather in Germany.” And I said “Look, it’s completely ridiculous. First of all, I don’t have any of my father’s ashes. We put them in a flower bed in Virginia. And secondly, he would’ve thought this was crazy. My father was a very scientific—he was a pathologist and he would have thought this was just rubbish. And she said “No, no. This would—Just do it.” So I collected some dirt from the flower bed, which may have had some ashes in them, but of course the ashes would be no different from the fertilizer we put in to help the flowers. But she asked me to—we took this little bag of dirt from this grave—this flowerbed in Virginia and we took them to Hamburg and we found my grandfather’s grave and we mixed the dirt from my father’s with…it may have had my father’s ash, with my grandfather’s grave.
You know what? I felt like I was reconciling my father to his father. I felt like I was returning my father to Germany—which he had been terribly sad to have lost because of the Nazis—and I was making something right. And I was connecting myself to all this history. And I used this in the book to say about myself: Look, I don’t believe in anything about this. I don’t believe my father’s ashes were there. I don’t think he knew about it. I know he would have thought this was idiotic. I could give you no conceivable intellectual defense for what I did. And I call it sort of a “magic belief,” then, because it was enchanted for me. I use this to say, “Alright. Look, I give up. I don’t have a religious account of this. I don’t feel any kind of rational account. It just meant a lot to me.” And that’s kind of the foundational feeling that people have for the dead. And it did, it kind of elided World War II. It was if my father and my grandfather were buried in the same place as they would have been had this horrible history not transpired.
HODGES: And there’s so much more we could talk about. The final part of the book is about cremation, speaking of ashes, it talks about the rise of cremation as sort of being a brand new thing on the scene in terms of technological advancement and the kind of things that could be done with dead bodies. And I encourage people to check out the book and read that, but the last question I have is, if you could sit down yourself with Diogenes and hear him talk about—
HODGES: —sort of tossing his body over a wall, what are you gonna tell him now you’ve done this history? What’s you’re take on that?
LAQUEUR: I would say “Look Diogenes, I take your point. But it really is an impossible point. And it’s fine to live in a barrel and maybe it’s fine to be a forger, but this business of throwing bodies over the wall and just letting them rot as garbage is just not on. It’ll never be on, and give up.”
HODGES: [Laughs] That’s good. That’s Thomas Laqueur. He is the author of The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk about this book.
LAQUEUR: It was a pleasure. Thank you for speaking to me.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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