The dead surprise us. In the melancholy words of Virginia Woolf, those who have passed away continually “leap out on us at street corners, or in dreams.”[1] They are, in a sense, still living, still with us. Yet their homes—street corners, dreams, graveyards—are not places of rest or quiet. They are, for us, merely places of transit: we don’t linger on the street, we wake up in the morning. We go to the graveyard, pause in remembrance, and leave.

Yet this pause isn’t an accident. Though a memory may catch us off-guard, we still savor it, or at least acknowledge that perhaps the dead deserve this moment of stillness. Despite the discomfort, we feel a need to care for those now buried, cremated, or otherwise gone. Historian Thomas Laqueur, speaking at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, offered his own exploration of this curious urge in his talk “Why Do We Care for the Dead?”

Laqueur framed his talk in part as a response to Diogenes, the ancient Greek philosopher and cynic. Asked how he wanted his body treated after his death, Diogenes suggested his followers simply toss his body outside the city for the animals. Horrified, his friends protested. Then just give me a stick, Diogenes responded, and I will beat away the animals. When another wisely pointed out that, being dead, Diogenes would not be able to wield a stick against his bestial attackers, Diogenes exclaimed that that was exactly his point. A corpse can’t fight an animal, can’t hold a stick, and certainly doesn’t care about the treatment of its flesh. After death we become objects, senseless bits of material.

 

How should we explain this desire to nurture the dead, this uncanny want that crosses all boundaries of nation, culture, and faith?

 

Most cultures don’t agree with Diogenes: the ritual practices and theologies of death represent one of the most complex areas of all traditions. The dead body is resurrected, transformed, healed, and redeemed. It provides power, creates relics, and opens a gateway to the heavens. It is, above all, not an inanimate object.

Yet Laqueur went further than simply highlighting the myriad of funerary rituals that characterize modern and ancient society. This is not about belief. Rather, for Laqueur, even those who reject the sacralization of the dead or of dead bodies partake in this deeply meaningful activity. He described the grave of Karl Marx: Marx explicitly condemned religion and rejected both spiritual and bodily immortality, yet around his body lie buried numerous other prominent Marxists. Together they form a kind of shrine, a strange space wherein those abhorrent of piety and devotion cling to the body of their intellectual guide. We might hesitate to call this religion—but it certainly comes close.

How then should we explain this desire to nurture the dead, this uncanny want that crosses all boundaries of nation, culture, and faith? Clearly, the body carries a certain type of power, whether we want it to or not. It draws us toward it, demands that we care for it and provide it with proper rites and respect. A failure to do so incurs wrath. Even to the proudly secular, an abandoned, nighttime graveyard looks less than welcoming.

Numerous scholars have attempted to explain this overwhelming power of the dead. It is, as many have remarked, a topic that concerns, or will concern, us all. Robert Harrison, for example, sees burial as a way in which we “humanize the ground on which [we] build [our] worlds and found are histories.”[2] We fill the ground with our ancestors, thereby creating a warm and stable world steeped with our own memories and loves.

 

The dead represent a magic that still pervades our supposedly scientific world.

 

Laqueur’s answer is at once more deeply historical and open-ended. During his talk, he sketched two narratives, one built on specific examples, thinkers, and historical episodes. He spoke of British law, clerical duties, and the sorrow of English families denied access to the parish cemetery. These quarrels between the bereaved, the church, and the state often led to clandestine burials, improvised eulogies, and funerals held under the cover of darkness. Parents fought for proper rites; the bodies of the unbaptized or outcast became sites of religious conflict. No one compromised on the correct treatment of the dead.

Laqueur’s second narrative reflected a much broader look at human history. Here Laqueur makes his most important point: the dead body holds a disquieting power, and moreover, it always has. Whether in the Middle Ages or the 21st Century, the dead have received special care and extraordinary treatment. They represent a magic that still pervades our supposedly scientific world. Our obsession with the dead does not die. It keeps drawing us back to the cemetery, back to the silent stone of the grave.

That the dead retain their power even in this technological age suggests further possibilities. Laqueur seemed to imply a real secularization, a sense of spiritual loss that the dead refuse to acknowledge. This makes the dead special. But what if they represent something larger, more widespread? If we can find enchantment in the dead, perhaps it remains in other realms as well. Certainly, the modern world differs vastly from those which came before it. But if we still feel an otherworldly, insistent pull emanating from the bodies of the dead, perhaps a perceived disenchantment reflects our own blindness, our inability to recognize mystery and power in the world around us.


Lewis West is co-editor-in-chief of Cosmologics.

 

[1] Virginia Woolf, The Waves (New York: Harcourt, 1931), 274.

[2] Robert Pogue Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), xi.

Image from Flickr via rachel sian

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