They Won’t Rest in Peace

La Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2002
Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos
La Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2002

A large part of Thomas Laqueur’s inquiry into modern attitudes toward the dead has to do with “a vast enterprise on a small stage: the work of the dead in western Europe since the eighteenth century.” Among other subjects, he aims to show how the cemetery replaced the churchyard as the main resting place of the dead in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He also delves into the modern history of cremation. But Laqueur’s central theme is not narrowly historical. It concerns “the long anthropological view—deep time” in which humans have emerged as a species:

The book begins with and is supported by a cosmic claim: the dead make civilization on a grand and an intimate scale, everywhere and always: their historical, philosophical, and anthropological weight is enormous and almost without limit and compare.

Throughout the book, Laqueur’s antagonist is the Greek philosopher Diogenes (circa 412–323 BCE), who is reported to have instructed his students that when he died he wanted his body to be thrown outside the city walls so that it could be eaten by animals. Diogenes did not care what happened to his body after he died, since at that point he would no longer exist. The ancient Cynic originated a long tradition, “running from antiquity to Charles Dickens in the nineteenth century to Jessica Mitford in the twentieth,” according to which much or all of the care we accord the dead is folly. In Laqueur’s view, this tradition is at odds with strong and enduring human needs. Diogenes “was right (his or any body forever stripped of life cannot be injured), but also existentially wrong, wrong in a way that defies all cultural logic.”

The dead body matters “because the living need the dead far more than the dead need the living. It matters because the dead make social worlds. It matters because we cannot bear to live at the borders of our mortality.” The human mind cannot help treating the dead human body as if it were something other and more than a lump of lifeless matter. The Work of the Dead is an extended meditation on this singular fact.

Professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, Laqueur covers an enormous span of time and space in this book. Moving from Diogenes to Augustine and swiftly on to the eighteenth-century English freethinker William Godwin, he shows how in their different ways the Christian saint and the rationalist thinker responded to Diogenes’ counsel. For Augustine, Christians could be even more indifferent to what happened to dead bodies than the pagan philosopher, since Christians believe humans are essentially immortal souls that do not die but go on to another world. Yet it mattered where the common Christian was laid to rest, and the preferred…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.