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Our History with Death

Posted by Steven Palmer on January 1, 2016

  “It (the study of death and culture) matters because the living need the dead far more that the dead need the living.”  –Thomas W. Laqueur, “Work of the Dead”


  Man has been trying to understand death and the lifeless remains that death creates since the beginning of human existence. Ancient stories tell us of Adam having to deal with the body of his son Abel (killed by Cain). A young raven fell from its nest and died. Adam watched an older raven scratch a hole and inter its young one. He knew then what to do with a deceased human being, his son.

  Diogenes, the Greek philosopher, would not call a person deceased “a dead human body.” He believed that once death occurred you had a dead body, a form without sensation, of no further use to society that should be fed to the birds and beasts.

  This gives a glimpse into a new book Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur (2015 Princeton University Press).

  Laqueur balances Diogenes with Hugo Grotius, the father of modern international law who opined that the care of the dead is a sign of compassion and religion; it is common to all civilized nations. It is evidence of a “common humanity.”

  A large part of Laqueur’s study is of cemeteries. All cemeterians are encouraged to read this as it relates the history of final resting places. The ancient churchyards are referred to as Christian “necrogeography.” Burial gardens laid out east to west so the interred souls would arise facing Jerusalem. The south side of the cemetery being the most desired. Those reputed to be good Christians were placed toward the south and east. Those not allowed burial in the Churchyard were hung from “the Gibbets (scaffolds)”, or burnt, or sent to an anatomy theater where surgeons performed dissection before large public groups.

        Here I lie by the chancel door;

        They put me here because I was poor.

        The further in, the more you pay,

        But here I lie, as snug as they. (Grave epitaph)

  Necrobotany is another term we become familiar with. The European yew “the tree of the dead” was the most common wood perennial plant. The European White Willow was often confused with the “weeping willow” whose drooping branches made it easy to mistake as the “tree of lamentation.”

  Necrotopography gives historians a view of how the cemeteries inhabitants were laid to rest. Long furrows suggested trench-like burials, other areas showing graves that had caved and over filled burial spots. In Thomas Gray’s classic poem, “Elegy Written in a Churchyard”: “Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade, Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap, Each in his narrow cell forever laid, The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.”

  Death and burial became a tidier affair due to the fear that the decedents would affect public health (even though much evidence disputed that). Dr. Thomas Southwood-Smith was convinced that “death would infect life.” “Urban churchyards were closed, burial boards were created, and the administration of dead bodies was passed to secular authorization.”

  During the same period, slaughterhouses were moved from public view, public executions became private and a concerted effort was made to quickly remove livestock excrement from the public thoroughfares.

  Burial societies began to be formed to assist with the costs of funerals and burial. In 1874 some two and a quarter million people had joined these societies to help defray death and sickness expenses.

  The College of Heralds prescribed funeral entitlements for those claiming noble heritage. So that proper decorum and somber respect was shown to each class, there were dictates to the funeral procession. “A King could be allowed fifteen mourners, an earl or viscount nine, a knight five and a gentleman two.” The “bannerols” or banners displayed and paraded were an important part of an aristocrat’s funeral proceedings as they showed his or her pedigree.

  Wars and their mortal casualties is another section of study. From ancient battles to contemporary combat, the recurring theme is the proper burial of the dead and the accurate recording of such. Reclaiming the lost soldier has, and will always be, important to the military, his or her countrymen and most importantly to the surviving family. The return of the dead during and after the civil war gave birth to modern day embalming so that such could happen. World War I with the fatalities on foreign soil led to great international struggle on who “owned” these deceased. Did the country of the soldier’s origin have the right to at least organize and record the places of burial?

  The Unknown Warrior of England was to represent all of those lost and unidentified fallen during World War I. Four sets of skeletal remains were found in the muddy fields of battle in France. They were brought to a Quonset hut in a wagon. Brigadier General B. J. Wyatt, commissioned with the task of selecting an unknown warrior, was blindfolded and brought before the four simple coffins. He selected one set of remains, at midnight, and that soldier became the symbol to honor all others. The remains were transferred into a more substantial casket and interred with full military honors in Westminster Abbey. The “runner ups” were returned to the graves of the unknown, “Known but to God.”

  Collecting names of decedents, who met their fate with many others, has been and always will be an important part of history and the remembrance of the event that took their lives and their stories as individuals. From wars long ago to more recent battles, acts of mass killings have been forever remembered with a listing of names. From the Holocaust memorials to the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor to the Vietnam Wall, their names live on. This form of necrominalism (the precise counting and marking of our dead) converts many dead to individuals who lived among us.

  Cremation and its origins and acceptance occupies another good portion of Laqueur’s book. The evolution from being unacceptable to most (as it was a way of disposing of unwanted or diseased dead) to being a form of disposition freely accepted by aristocrats and professional people.

  The practice was sold by its “purifying” value. Cremationists claimed decomposing remains sent “deadly effluvia” into the air. Deceased remains were like refuse, “like the remains of the stockyards and the privy.” The fear of “not being dead,” but being pronounced that way, was another selling point. “There is no danger of waking up in a cold grave if one was reduced to ashes in a fiery grave.”

  Counter arguments came from the Catholic Church claiming that death was “inflicted on mankind to punish sin.” Cremation was viewed as an attempt to “master death” by human powers. Evangelical churches reminded the flock that cremation was used by socialists and radicals.

  The right to die argument is the conclusion of Laqueur’s study. Presenting pro and con arguments, the book concludes with this paragraph:

  “A history written from the perspective of centuries hence will have to tell that story. The story of modern dying or perhaps not to die at all.”


  “People still care; the dead still do work for the living in private and also in public.”      –Thomas W. Laqueuer


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