A unique effort to redeem the dead (MIPodcast Moments)

09.07.2016 | The Maxwell Institute

Today’s “MIPodcast Moment” comes from Rosalynde Welch, whose forthcoming article in the Mormon Studies Review focuses on the work of Adam Miller, Joseph Spencer, and other LDS theological and philosophical scholars. 

I had an arresting start to my morning as I listened to historian Thomas Laqueur on the Maxwell Institute Podcast describe his experience scattering the ashes of his father—a German Jew forced to flee Nazi Germany never to return to his birthland—at the grave of his grandfather, a passionate German nationalist who died in 1927 before Hitler’s atrocities.

Laqueur himself is a rationalist atheist, but nevertheless he could not escape a profound encounter with the numinous at the nexus of family, history, and death. At the moment of mingling his father’s and grandfather’s remains in the place of their shared heritage, Laqueur said, it was as if he elided the despair of World War II, pinching off that segment of history—not to discard, but to redeem it as he stood between his father and grandfather and joined their hands across the years.

From the episode’s transcript:

BLAIR 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 the importance of the names of the dead. Instead of covering all of it, let’s talk about one particular story. You tell a personal story about your own grandfather involving Judaism, Germany, and World War II that’s sort of symbolic of the importance of burial practices and how communities reckon with histories.

laqueur-thomasTHOMAS LAQUEUR: 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.

Thomas Laqueur isn’t a Mormon, but in this sense he already knows what it feels like to be one. The enchantment of the dead and death culture is a core feature of human experience, differently inflected in particular traditions but widely uniting the human family.

You can learn more about the cultural work of the dead in Thomas Laqueur’s MIPodcast interview (also available in transcript form) and in Laqueur’s book The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains.