The Work of the Dead: 15 facts on graves, ghosts, and other mortal concerns

The Work of the DeadAs 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.


The Work of the Dead, p. 125. 4.1 Southeast view of a church, described as St. John’s of Southwark, showing the churchyard. J.W. Edy after a painting by John Buckler, F.S.A., 1799. © British Library.

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.


The Work of the Dead, p. 210. 4.13 Tomb of David Hume, Old Calton Cemetary, Edinburgh. Carlos Delgado.

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.


The Work of the Dead p. 38. 1.2. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. Philipp Galle (1537-1612), from the series The Eight Wonders of the World. After Maarten van Heemskerck, 1572. Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum. Gift of Robert Bradford Wheaton and Barbara Ketcham Wheaton in Honor of Mrs Arthur K. Solomon, M25955. © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

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.


The Work of the Dead, p. 20. 1.5. The grave of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery, London.

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!

Fall Warbler Sighting!

Scott Whittle and Tom Stephenson, authors of The Warbler Guide, are busy all month with events (see here), but that won’t stop us from keeping their awesome warbler images coming!

The photo below from The Warbler Guide is of a female Black-and-white Warbler in the fall, snapped by none other than Scott Whittle himself. And don’t worry, we promise the bird is upside down, not your computer!

Black-and-white warbler
Have you spotted any interesting birds this migration season? Let us know in the comments below!

Fall Warblers

For guys like Scott Whittle and Tom Stephenson, authors of The Warbler Guide, spotting a warbler and snapping a picture is an exciting moment, and for those of us who stepped on a twig and scared that bird off long before we got out our iPhone, we’re just glad someone else is able to get the job done.

The photo below from The Warbler Guide is of a male Common Yellowthroat in the fall.

Common Yellowthroat

Have you spotted any interesting birds this migration season? Let us know in the comments below!

Looking for something to do with all those fall apples? We recommend Senegalese Soup from Cooking for Crowds

Senegalese Soup

Senegalese soup is a smooth cream of chicken with curry. A classic French adaptation of Oriental tastes, this soup is elegant and smooth, and acceptable as a beginning to any meal.

6 12 20 50

onions, chopped 2 4 7 15
celery stalks, chopped 2 4 6 10
apples, peeled and chopped 2 4 7 10
butter 3 tbs 6 tbs 10 tbs 3 sticks
curry powder 2 tbs 4 tbs 8 tbs ¾ c
all-purpose flour ¼ c ½ c ¾ c 2 c
chicken stock or broth 4 c 8 c 4 qts 8 qts
salt (to taste)
chili powder (to taste)
cayenne (to taste)
heavy cream 2 c 4 c 5½ c 10 c

fresh parsley, chopped
avocado, peeled and chopped

In a large saucepan (or two kettles) sauté the onions, celery, and apples in the butter until the mixture is soft but not browned. Add the curry powder and sauté for 2 minutes more, then add the flour, stirring well. Cook, stirring, for a minute or so more. Gradually stir in the chicken stock or broth and cook the soup until it thickens. Add the salt, chili powder, and cayenne to taste.

Puree the mixture in a blender or put through a food mill, a few cups at a time, until smooth. Chill the soup, if serving it cold. Just before serving, stir in the cream and garnish each portion with parsley (hot) or avocado (cold).

note: While the soup can be served hot or cold, it is best (and easiest for a crowd) if served cold.

White_CookingForCrowdsF13This recipe is taken from Cooking for Crowds by Merry “Corky” White. We are publishing a 40th edition of this classic cookbook in December.