The big sleep
Headstone commemorating William Blake and his wife Catherine Sophie buried close by in Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, London. © Ken Worpole
Some years ago a journalist claimed that for the first time in history the living outnumbered the dead. It sounded plausible, and I seem to remember that in his exquisite essay, Urne Buriall, Thomas Browne also raised this possibility. But it is not true. Nevertheless the weight the dead bring to bear upon the living is heavy, and this is what the historian Thomas Laqueur sets out to demonstrate in his monumental history, The Work of the Dead.
‘This book begins with and is supported by a cosmic claim,’ Laqueur writes. ‘The dead make a civilization on a grand and intimate scale, everywhere and always: their historical, philosophical, and anthropological weight is enormous and almost without limit and compare.’ There follow nearly 700 pages of closely argued text detailing the many ways the dead have shaped if not determined the world of the living, focusing disturbingly at times on the sheer material ‘uncanny’ of the corpse itself, often possessing more agency when dead than when alive.
One of the more obvious ways the dead exert their continuing presence in the world is visually, in the form of dolmens, standing stones, burial mounds, churchyards, cemeteries, memorials or a variety of other commemorative structures, inscriptions, and dedications. My regular 141 bus ride from Stoke Newington to Liverpool Street Station is hallowed by many such memorials to the dead, whether the plaque for Mary Wollestonecraft at Newington Green, the closed Jewish Cemetery along Balls Pond Road, memorials to John Wesley and William Blake at Bunhill Fields (and close by, the unique Postman’s Park, which memorializes those who gave their lives to save others), or the sombre lists of railway staff who died in the First and Second World Wars at Liverpool Street Station. Also on the station concourse are two statues commemorating the arrival there of the Jewish kindertransports from Germany at the outbreak of WW2. This is not all. Any train out of Liverpool Street heading into Essex passes through several miles of burial ground (over 60% of public open space in the borough of Newham is cemetery land), before arriving into open country. This historicizing of the landscape makes it human, or as Patrick Wright once said, you can’t have a city without ghosts.
The Work of the Dead is divided into four sections: The Deep Time of the Dead, The Places of the Dead, The Names of the Dead, and Burning the Dead. Starting at an anthropological level, relating the long history of changing belief systems to the treatment of the dead body, the book comes closer to our own times when the Reformation challenged the intercessionary power of the Catholic church as the gate-keeper of the after-life. We began to die alone. The revolutionary epoch in France and the creation of the secular cemetery at Pere-Lachaise in 1804, helped bring mortality into the modern age: a name and a private burial plot for all. This is more or less where we stand – or lie – today.
Section II charts the rise and fall of the churchyard and its displacement by the civic cemetery. This is relatively familiar material, though Laqueur’s detailing of the process of physical decomposition recorded at the time in many overcrowded churchyards across Europe – which led to the sanitization of burial beyond the city limits – makes grisly reading. Much more intractable material is yet to come in Section III. The horrific accounts of the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, of imperial conquest and mass slaughter, the carnage of the First World War, and then the numbing detail of the mechanics of mass extermination and cataclysm of the Holocaust, all bring the scale of human ‘disposal’ to unimaginable limits. As the author frequently reminds the reader, while it is acceptable to think positively about an individual death – its aetiology, its social meaning, and its material conclusion – mass slaughter remains almost impossible to ‘process’. The ‘emotional economy’ of war and genocide is beyond meaning.
Laqueur concludes with some harsh things to say about the enthusiastic adoption of cremation in the 20th century – ‘a breathtaking exercise in disenchantment’ – a position I have also come to, having spent time thinking about the rites and rituals of death in the modern world. The abrupt destruction of the human form seems too traumatic, leaving nothing to build upon in the way of architectural response, let alone as an important element in the human landscape. Architecture began with tomb, and landscape has so often been given memorable form by the burial mound, the public memorial or the cemetery. Yet few crematorium gardens possess any emotional depth at all. If as Laqueur suggests, the churchyard is a Gemeinschaft (community) and the cemetery is a Gesellschaft (society), the crematorium garden or columbarium is a kind of bank vault.
Laqueur’s book is a major work, though at times it makes for difficult reading, with its unflinching gaze upon the brutality of war and genocide, invariably accompanied by a callous indifference to human suffering en masse. It also ends suddenly, without any discussion on the growing trend for ‘green burial’, on the re-use of the grave space (common in Southern Europe where bodies are immured in wall tombs for as little as ten years before being removed and the space used again), or any wider observations on attitudes to mortality and personal memorialization in present times. The dead lie heavily in the clay in Laqueur’s study, though on their contested and disrupted presence above ground in the modern city – roadside memorials, white bicycles, inscribed park benches, graffiti and protest marches – the author has little to say.
Because there are few stories to compensate for the dark matter of the subject, it was disappointing to find no mention of one of the kindlier accommodations for the dead, the Friedhof der Namenlosen (Cemetery for the Nameless) in Vienna, where bodies recovered from the River Danube were buried with appropriate ceremony as an act of human solidarity. Death is both a catastrophe but it also the defining mark of being human.