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The revenant in representations

In 1983, in the inaugural issue of Representations, the historian Thomas Laqueur published an article entitled “Bodies, Death, and Pauper Funerals.” The contributor’s bio accompanying the essay notes that Laqueur “is presently working on a study of the meaning of death in post-Reformation England.” Presently…do you mean “right now,” or “soon”? However you define it, the use here turned out to stretch any reasonable expectation of the timing in question. The book that resulted, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, came out in 2015—thirty-two years later.

The Work of the Dead reflects the time it has taken to produce. Every page exudes love, care, erudition, and insight. Over the course of 711 pages, Laqueur delves deep into the history of the dead in the modern West. England takes pride of place in the presentation, as do the Protestant and post-Protestant secular legacies, but Laqueur ties these to discussions (and, it must be said, occasional digressions) on elsewhere, including Germany, the United States, Italy, and France. Within the field of death studies, The Work of the Dead will certainly gain a place next to Philippe Ariès’ The Hour of our Death as one of the true classics.

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Illustration by Ed Linfoot

The main story that Laqueur tells will not be new to specialists, it is true. What we do with our dead is an index of our cultural values, metaphysical orientations, and social order. And what we see over the course of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, through changes to practices of burial, as well as the widespread adoption of cremation, is the dismantling of a world. That world was shaped by religion and with it, particular understandings of any number of things, including time, subjectivity, care, and our modes of relating to each other. But if the story is one of dismantling, it is also one of new constructions—constructions, of course, made up of the stuff to hand. Between the 1750s, which is where Laqueur starts in Representations, and the 2010s, where he ends, in the afterword to this book, with some moving reflections on euthanasia, “the dead in their corporeality have moved from the domain of culture to the domain of nature, from religion to science, from control of priests to the control of doctors and public officials” (236).

If the story is familiar, though, this telling is particularly detailed and rich. Over the course of exploring three main sites—the churchyard, the cemetery, and the crematorium—Laqueur covers everything from the rise of coffin use in the nineteenth century to Sir Henry Thompson’s founding of the British Cremation Society in 1874. Over the course of the nearly forty years that he worked on this book, he mined an unusually wide range of sources. Dozens of archives, of course—as well as letters and inquiries to county archivists in more remote locals (back in the days when scholars sent actual letters; and the recipients replied). But his book draws on much more than this standard fare. He asked his undergraduate and graduate students to translate valuable texts, in Romanian and Hebrew, for instance. He visited Manchester Crematorium, to observe first-hand the backstage operations; he went to Cimetière du Père Lachaise, in Paris, as well. He even enrolled in medical school, near the start of this venture, which gave him an uncommonly intimate association with his subject matter, as he came to understand the dead body as “a very material thing, with holes through which nerves and vessels and liquids pass, and connective tissues that connect, and tendons that, if pulled, still move muscles” (ix). All such detail is marshaled in the service of showing how “the dead came to work in the interests of historically, as opposed to divinely, defined communities in the Enlightenment” (550). Indeed, much more than his predecessor, Ariès, who had a penchant for letting a poetic sensibility eclipse the norms of prose and demands of documents, Laqueur builds his scholarship on footnotes.

This is not to say that Laqueur’s writing lacks spark; it is often lively and at key junctures productively emotional—even personal. Readers familiar with death studies will recognize this mode of writing. Death is a subject that seems to invite, even demand, interpellation of the author. I’m thinking here of Geoffrey Gorer’s (1965) remarkable introduction to Death, Grief and Mourning in Contemporary Britain, where he relates the deaths of his father and brother. Or, more recently, the moving preface to Dead Matter (2015), by Margo Schwartz, where we hear of her discovery, at the age of fifteen, of her father in his study, dead from a heart attack, with a pained expression frozen on his face. Laqueur’s father also makes an appearance in this book, as do others of his dead, in some of the more reflexive passages of the Introduction.

Although Laqueur does not remark explicitly upon the intention of such rhetorical moves, what binds these authorial testimonies together is precisely what drives The Work of the Dead forward through the chapters. And that is what all these scholars mark as the undeniable affect, the undeniable meaning and power, of the human corpse. If the big-picture story that Laqueur tells is of disenchantment, his real interest—and, to my mind, the most notable aspect of his intervention—is in asserting a deeper level of continuing and unbroken wonder over the magic of the corpse. “Some irresistible power of the imagination, independent of any particular religious beliefs, blinds us to the cold reality of what a corpse really is” (5). When he speaks of dead bodies, he invokes our reactions to them in terms of “deep structures of intuition and feeling” (11).

Irresistible powers? Deep structures? This is where The Work of the Dead takes off, in this argument/admission that stands completely at odds with the very tradition in which Laqueur has worked—indeed, has helped shape—over the past forty years. What could be more unhistorical, more anti-historical? What could be more un-anthropological? This second question is relevant because, throughout his career, Laqueur has acknowledged the influence of anthropology upon his approach: Clifford Geertz, Marshall Sahlins, Gayle Rubin, Katherine Verdery; he sings their praises all. The Work of the Dead, he writes, has in fact “been written under the sway of anthropology informed by history” (14).

It is true that, after Geertz and Sahlins, and, for instance, after Rubin’s critique of Claude Lévi-Strauss on the elementary structures of kinship, it became démodé to appeal to irresistible powers and deep structures. But it is also true that none of these figures give up on trying to make sense of what is general and what is particular in the human makeup. The same holds for Laqueur; most of this long book is very particular, very historical and emplaced. It is only in the framing, really, and the occasional aside, that he throws caution to the wind and starts to talk about that which is cosmic and timeless.

To appreciate the importance of this carefully placed emphasis, it is helpful to reflect on something of where Laqueur has come from. In doing so, returning to Representations is a useful thing to do, because that journal is a very good index of shifts that took place in the humanities and human sciences in the 1980s. And of course these shifts still define the contours of much contemporary scholarship.

Representations is one of those era-defining journals. Launched in 1983, it was the result of an intense set of interdisciplinary conversations and friendships, many of which took shape at Berkeley.[1] Laqueur was not just a contributor to the first issue; he was part of the crew. Like other initiatives of that period, Representations was marked from the outset by the refusal of grand narratives and an emphasis on cultural fashioning. It became the house journal of what Stephen Greenblatt went on to call “New Historicism.” Think of Representations (or New Historicism) and you should think of “the fascination with the particular, the wide-ranging curiosity, the refusal of universal aesthetic norms, and the resistance to formulating an overarching theoretical program” (Gallagher and Greenblatt 2000: 6) that, within anthropology, has also found favor and expression through many outlets. It will not surprise anthropologists, then, that Clifford Geertz was so important to the New Historicism. Free of any Oedipal dynamics, Geertz has actually fared better among historians and literary critics than among anthropologists. It was Representations, we might note, that published the most interesting collection of essays that we have on Geertz, The Fate of “Culture,” in 1997 (see Ortner 1997).

Despite the upstart outlook, and the intention to capture a new disposition, Representations was launched with the sounds of silence. There was no proclamation, no manifesto, no statement of purpose. Reflecting on this several years after the fact, Catherine Gallagher and Greenblatt (2000: 4) admit that, despite the bonds that tied everyone together in the editorial collective, they could not all agree on exactly what such a proclamation should proclaim. In this, perhaps, the group was at least practicing what it preached; how could a journal committed to the particular and resistance to overarching theory ever have a constitutional text?

“Bodies, Death, and Pauper Funerals” fit perfectly in this new outlet. It is particular. It draws upon the historical record, but also literature—making the archive and a Charles Dickens novel part of the same whole (blurring boundaries of fact and fiction is a common approach in New Historicism). It documents changes and contingencies. It ends with a reflection on something that Walter Benjamin said. And it has no references to deep structures or irresistible powers.

Bodies have always been central to Laqueur’s focus. The offering in Representations staked his interest in dead ones, but, over the following two decades, Laqueur became much better known for what he had to say about the history of bodies as both sexed (differentiations between male and female) and sexual (especially changing views on masturbation and the importance of female orgasms to impregnation). Making Sex is his well-known history of “the contingency of delight” (1990: 3), through which he traces the shift in attitudes towards the relationship between pleasure and procreation; until the end of the eighteenth century, it was widely held that, in order for women to conceive, they needed to orgasm. By that time, however, the necessity of this connection was increasingly questioned and, with it, a whole host of attitudes towards the sexed and gendered nature of bodies and of desires began to shift. “The commonplace of much contemporary psychology—that men want sex while women want relationships—is the precise inversion of pre-Enlightenment notions that, extending back to antiquity, equated friendship with men and fleshliness with women” (1990: 3-4).

It is not difficult to show that throughout Laqueur’s career we can find a consistent interest in the relationship between the universal and the particular, nature and culture. Laqueur never denies universals or naturals. Yet in these middle periods of his work, on sex and sexuality, such acknowledgments lack the backing, or even specter, of irresistible powers and deep structures. The body does matter. We cannot ignore it. Laqueur is clear. “I have no interest in denying the reality of sex or of sexual dimorphism as an evolutionary process,” he writes. “But I want to show,” he adds, “on the basis of historical evidence that almost everything one wants to say about sex—however sex is understood—already has in it a claim about gender. Sex…is situational; it is explicable only within the context of battles over gender and power” (1990: 11). These points read now as elementary; they are what every attentive student knows from reading Michel Foucault or Judith Butler. Discourse, words, and language become the solid ground on which to stand.

What bothered Geertz about the search for universals in the human sciences was not the search itself, but its horizon. Rather than trade in nostrums about the universality of marriage, or religion, he argued, we should look instead to the intricacies of the specific. “It may be in the cultural particularities of people—in their oddities—that some of the most instructive revelations of what it is to be generically human are to be found” (1973: 43). Something like marriage is, in itself, as Geertz put it, “bloodless,” when posited as a universal (1973: 43). What do we really learn in making such a general claim?

The dead body might well be the most bloodless universal of them all, combining, as it does, the literal and the figurative meanings of the term. For Laqueur a corpse is certainly something special; its nothingness is the mark of its plenitude. What The Work of the Dead suggests is that maybe we need something so lifeless, something so ruptured, to appreciate the role of deep structures in the world. In this respect, Laqueur is saying that the corpse might well be the bloodless universal that defies the rule of universals being bloodless. “The dead body matters, everywhere and across time” (1).

Laqueur certainly covers a broad swathe of time, but the anthropologist in me does bristle slightly that he doesn’t bolster his invocation of everywhere with much in the way of non-Western examples. There is brief reference to Robert Hertz, one note on the fantastic study by the Africanists, Cohen and Odhiambo (1992), but nothing from the wider ethnographic record outside of Europe or America. This is a shame not least because that record is very supportive of the kind of claim he wants to make (see, e.g., Bloch and Parry 1982; Metcalf and Huntington 1991). Even the Hadza, of Tanzania, show the work of the dead, albeit of a very minimal nature (see Woodburn 1982).

Diogenes provides Laqueur with his mythical template. Diogenes the Cynic told his friends that, when he died, they should toss his body over the city wall. They scoffed; should they let him be eaten by wild beasts, torn to shreds? For Diogenes the point is that what becomes of his body does not matter, because his body is not him. What Laqueur is interested in tracing is why, despite the fact that Diogenes is correct, we—i.e., the human race—do not accept it. Care for the dead matters.

It is the admission of marvel that most strikes me about this work. What we get in The Work of the Dead is a shrug of the shoulders from a man whom one might have expected rather a pursing of the lips. “Unmasking may have its place, but this is not my purpose” (27). To be sure, Laqueur always comes back to where he began. He always comes back to history. But even for himself, and other unenchanted moderns, he writes, the work of the dead contains “a protean magic that we believe despite ourselves” (27).

Laqueur’s book is a major historical study of the ways in which the living put the dead to work in their cultural schemes. But it is notable above and beyond this because of the tack he takes in realizing the job at hand. This tack is part of a broader pattern within the humanities and human sciences of movement away from the orthodoxies—or, at least, emphases—that have held sway since the 1970s and 1980s. Simply put, in many corners and in some turrets, the academy is softening the line on enchantment.

Within the (web) pages of AOTC, this can be seen by the high levels of anthropological interest in questions of ontology; AOTC seems to feature an article on the nature of being at least once per issue. But such surrenders to wonder are elsewhere afoot, and Laqueur’s newest historicism is a good indication of it. Look also to the political theorist Jane Bennett (2001); she has been on this path for some time now. Within literary studies, Rita Felski (2015) has recently published a book that dares to probe the limits of critique. For her, Bruno Latour’s step back from persistent questioning and the search for hidden meanings offers liberation, not shackles. In related areas, and with Geertz very much in mind—the Geertz of “deep play” and “thick description”— other leading figures in literary studies have started to advocate for such modes of analysis as “thin description,” “surface reading,” and “just reading.” (Much of this, it is worth nothing, has appeared in Representations.) There are other things to do, they say, than get lost in the thickets of hermeneutics. These are approaches which, as Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus put it, “lets ghosts be ghosts, instead of saying what they are ghosts of” (2009: 13). The Work of the Dead leaves room for the revenant in just this way. It’s almost as if Laqueur is saying that it is what it is, take it or leave it.


Ariès, Philippe. 1981. The Hour of Our Death. Translated from the French by Helen Weaver. New York: Vintage.

Bennett, Jane. 2001. The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. 2009. Surface Reading: An Introduction. Representations 108(1): 1-21.

Bloch, Maurice and Jonathan Parry, eds. 1982. Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cohen, David William and E.S. Atieno Odhiambo. 1992. Burying SM: The Politics of Knowledge and the Sociology of Power in Africa. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.

Felski, Rita. 2015. The Limits of Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gallagher, Catherine and Stephen Greenblatt. 2000. Practicing New Historicism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man. In The Interpretation of Cultures. Pp. 33-54. New York: Basic Books.

Gorer, Geoffrey. 1965. Death, Grief and Mourning in Contemporary Britain. London: The Cresset Press.

Laqueur, Thomas W. 1983. Bodies, Death, and Pauper Funerals. Representations 1: 109-131.

—–. 1991. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Metcalf, Peter and Richard Huntington. 1991. Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual. (Second edition) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ortner, Sherry, ed. 1997. The Fate of “Culture:” Geertz and Beyond. Special Issue of Representations, number 59.

Schwartz, Margaret. 2015. Dead Matter: The Meaning of Iconic Corpses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Woodburn, James. 1982. Social Dimensions of Death in Four African Hunting and Gathering Societies. In Death and the Regeneration of Life, edited by Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry. Pp. 187-201. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  1. [1]Within anthropology, the journals Cultural Anthropology and Public Culture also belong to this era and orbit.

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