Former rabbi wins prize for his book about the dead

Thomas Laqueur
Thomas Laqueur

Thomas Laqueur, a history professor at the University of California, Berkeley, spent about half his lifetime researching and writing a monumental book about the dead– The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains – which was published last year by Princeton University Press.

Laqueur was in Toronto Nov. 18 as one of three finalists for the Cundill Prize in Historical Literature, which features a grand prize of $75,000 (US), one of the most lucrative international awards for a nonfiction book. Laqueur’s more than 700-page tome turned out to be the winner.

“I’ve been interested in the general subject, the history of dying and the dead, for pretty much all my career,” Laqueur, a former rabbi and the son of a medical pathologist, told The CJN by telephone several days before the awards ceremony. “When you spend so much time of your life doing something, it’s hard to know when you started.”

But he recalls that he wrote his earliest notes for the book in 1972.

The Work of the Dead provides a detailed account of how and why the living have cared for the dead from antiquity to modern times. In ancient times the Greek philosopher Diogenes urged that his body, after his death, be tossed over the city walls for beasts to scavenge. The suggestion may have offered philosophers food for thought, but human societies have universally rejected it.

Much evidence exists to shows that human societies have always cared for their dead, Laqueur notes. “They’ve found very early burials, 40,000 years ago, showing that even Neanderthals buried their dead. When it started, and whether it was coterminous with language, we don’t know.”

According to Laqueur, the churchyard became the dominant resting place for the dead in the Middle Ages, but the cemetery has largely supplanted it in the modern era. When it was established in 1804, the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery of Paris became “a genuinely new kind of space for the dead in the heart of Europe.”

Universal in scope, The Work of the Dead presents countless instances of cultural practices throughout history related to the dead, including many Jewish examples.

“To be specific about the Jewish case, in the late 19th century Reformed Jews tended to cremate at a higher rate than their Christian brethren,” Laqueur said. “It was a sign of being modern and scientific and progress. But the rabbinic community thought that cremating the dead was an abomination. Different rabbis had different views and there was a big battle.”

Another rabbinical debate was generated after the Prussian state of the 19th century stipulated that burial could not occur for at least three days after death, thereby prohibiting the Jewish custom of immediate burial. “The great Moses Mendelson said it was OK to do what the state demands of us . . . but other rabbis thought it wasn’t okay.”

The book also documents how lists of names have stood in for actual bodies at Holocaust, Vietnam War, 9/11 and other memorial sites in the modern era. “The point I was interested in is how lists of names became representative of the dead. There’s been a mixed history of this. In antiquity a lot of names were collected, and then for a long time in Christianity relatively few names were collected. Jews started collecting names relatively earlier than some Christians did. In modern times it’s become one of our main forms of memorialization.”

The two runner-up authors each received a prize of $10,000. They are David Wooton for The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution (Harper Collins); and Andrea Wulf for The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World (Knopf, John Murray).