This book represents the fruits of a four-decade-long interest in the history of the dead from one of our leading cultural historians. It is about how the dead were cared for, treated, memorialised and recorded. Thomas Laqueur’s theme is why the dead mattered in history and the part they played in the making of the modern world. His is an interdisciplinary study, drawing on literature, history, law, anthropology, sociology, psychology, theology and medicine—to name but a few. The book is wide-ranging in other senses: although its temporal focus is the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it deploys evidence from the dawn of time to the present day. Its geographical scope is also considerable: despite being (mostly) a study of the British dead, there is material here from Europe, America and the wider world. It is highly erudite: 557 pages of prose are reinforced by 120 pages of footnotes, many of which take the form of scholarly vignettes and commentary. Lastly, this is a work of enormous humanity, particularly in those parts of the book devoted to the tragedies of the twentieth century. This book, in sum, is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. It comes in four parts. The first, ‘The Deep Time of the Dead’, explores the human urge to mark places of burial and give corpses special treatment. Christianity developed a new ‘necrogeography’ (one of the many necro-words encountered) wherein corpses were interred in, or adjacent to, churches. Human remains became relics with special spiritual power and meaning. This sacred Christian necrogeography survived the English Reformation: most Protestants were buried east–west, in consecrated ground, with the wealthy inside the church. This regime was overthrown in the nineteenth century when new cemeteries broke the link between parish church and deceased parishioners—to create ‘new memorial communities, to make a new civic order’ as part of the new industrialised, capitalised world (p. 93). The second part, ‘Places of the Dead’, explores further how the ‘old regime’ of churchyard interment gave way to the ‘cosmopolitan necrogeography’ (p. 111) of the cemetery. A churchyard was ‘an idealised community in deep time’ (p. 114). Only a few dissenting groups rejected the traditional orientation of the corpse, or buried their dead in unconsecrated ground. The peripheral (such as the unbaptised) were interred in unfashionable parts of the churchyard, or (in the case of suicides) expelled altogether. Churchyards were, in the eighteenth century, increasingly romanticised and eulogised. This regime was, however, increasingly under threat. In part, it was undermined by those who took up space by erecting memorial stones or burying the dead in iron or lead-lined coffins. It was also threatened by the growth of religious dissent. Reactionary clerics used their monopoly over churchyards to refuse to bury (or read the burial service for) those outside the Anglican communion. Bitter local disputes at the end of the eighteenth and in the nineteenth century increased demand for religiously neutral burial spaces. Chapter Five is pivotal, and tells the (familiar) story of the development of large-scale urban cemeteries—the new regime of the dead. Another reason these were needed was growing fear of the polluting power of the dead, who supposedly produced lethal effluvia. The resulting moral panic had (as Laqueur brilliantly points out) little scientific foundation, but it served to bring interment under the supervision of public health officials. The cultural impact of the new cemeteries owed a lot, too, to new fashions in design and architecture drawing on ancient notions of Arcadia and Elysium. Above all, the French cemetery of Père Lachaise (1804) was ‘ground zero’ (the template) for the new necrogeography. Nineteenth-century cemeteries thus took the form of landscaped gardens or parks, vanguards of modernity and progress, providing acres of space to be sold or rented out. Often divided into consecrated or unconsecrated ground, they enabled those with cash to erect permanent memorials in a bewildering range of architectural styles. The third part of the book investigates the ‘Names of the Dead’. The first chapter surveys lists of the dead drawn up in the ancient world for military purposes and, in medieval Britain, largely for spiritual ones. The great age of ‘necronominalism’, however, began in the sixteenth century with the development of the nation state, which produced parish registers and other attempts to record the names of citizens. The need to record and commemorate the dead by name, however, reached its real fruition in the nineteenth and especially the twentieth centuries, as mass slaughter demanded remembrance and recording on an unparalleled scale. Here the author describes movingly the creation of an ‘empire of the dead’: the names of over a million dead soldiers of the British Empire engraved on gravestones and monuments after the First World War. The fourth part of the book deals with the rise of cremation in the 1870s. New industrial techniques were used to dispose of corpses seen increasingly as a biological threat, and less as a repository of religious and spiritual beliefs. Any truly important book will provoke objections and promote further lines of enquiry. In this case, the author’s view can be rather metrocentric, and arguably places too much weight on the role played by new large-scale urban cemeteries: until well into the nineteenth century, traditional churchyards and burial grounds remained an important means of interring the dead even in rapidly industrialising cities such as Manchester and Sheffield. Keith Snell has shown recently, too, that many rural cemeteries opened in Victorian England. Furthermore, historically transient keepsakes and heirlooms worn on the person or kept in homes were (and surely still are) far more potent sources of memory than the place where the dead end up. In fact, few British diaries and autobiographies mention visiting the graves of dead relatives. How common was this practice in the past—how common is it today? Perhaps the dead do not matter as much as the author thinks? One of the great strengths of this wonderful book is that such questions remain open. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 15, 2018
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