As the air becomes crisp and we indulge our appetite for pumpkin-spiced everything, the falling leaves serve as a memento mori, a reminder of death and dying. Fittingly, this fall PUP is publishing Thomas Laqueur’s The Work of the Dead, a cultural history examining how and why the living have engaged with the dead from antiquity to the twentieth century. Here are some interesting facts and images from the book to get you in the spirit of the season!
1. Autolysis is the process by which enzymes that once turned food into nutrients begin to break down the body. Bacteria freed from the gut then starts to devour the flesh; in later stages microbes from the soil and air join in.
2. It used to be the case that all graves in Christendom were oriented toward Jerusalem. Around the turn of the 20th century, they began to be oriented toward walkways or bodies of water.
3. Tollund Man was killed in the 4th century BCE and found by peat cutters in 1950. Because of the preservative powers of the bog that was his final resting place, today we can discern the clothes he wore when he died, a cap of wool and sheepskin, and how he died, via strangulation. Scholars say that he was most likely a human sacrifice.
4. Certain traditions of modern Judaism insist on rapid burial, even at the risk of burying someone who is not yet dead, because of the dangers of spirits lurking around the body.
5. Christianity has had an ambivalent relationship with ghosts throughout the centuries. Augustine related a story of a dead father returning to his son to deliver vital information, for example, but by the time of the Reformation, Protestant thinkers explained continued widespread belief in ghosts as a holdover from Roman superstition.
6. In early nineteenth-century England, the potentially unquiet souls of those who had committed suicide were silenced by burying the bodies at a crossroads with a stake through the heart.
7. A Harris poll in 2003 determined that 51% of Americans believed that ghosts exist. Only 35% of those aged twenty five to twenty nine were skeptical, but 73% of those older than sixty five did not believe at all.
8. In Chinese antiquity, thousands of men, women, and children were beaten into the ramparts of the tombs of the Shang emperors so they could serve their lords in death as they had in life.
9. In the seventeenth century, the founder of modern international law, Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), compiled a library of opinions and practices from ancient authors in support of his view that the denial of burial was so fundamentally at odds with any conceivable norm—with being human—that it was a just cause for war.
10. In the Jewish tradition, it was God who taught man how to handle the dead. Adam and Eve were mourning the death of their son Abel when a raven fell dead near them. Another raven came, made a hole, and buried his dead fellow. Adam said, “I will do as this raven did,” and buried his son’s body.
11. Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) thought that burial of the dead was one of the three “universal institutions of humanity.” The other two are matrimony and religion.
12. Other than elephants and (it is argued) some insects, humans are the only animals that care for their dead.
13. During the 1790s in France, the Pantheon was built to house the new “gods” of the nation after they died. Mirabeau was the first to be admitted in 1791. Voltaire was interred there later that year.
14. Max Weber wrote in his study of the Protestant ethic, “the genuine Puritan even rejected all signs of religious ceremony at the grave and buried his nearest and dearest without song or ritual in order that no superstition, no trust in the effects of magical and sacramental forces of salvation, should creep in.”
15. Vladomir Nabokov said, “Our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”
For those in the Princeton area, Thomas Laqueur will be at Labyrinth Books on Friday, October 30 at 5:30pm to talk about his book. Mark your calendars!