Culture and the care of the dead

Will the idea of communal urns take hold in the United States? Social historian Thomas Laqueur found the urn in Cuernavaca, Mexico, "a beautiful idea for burying the dead together. … It's lovely and novel," the University of California, Berkeley history professor told NCR.

In late September, Laqueur published The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. In his engaging 700-page tome, he observes that for as long as people have discussed the subject, care of the dead has been regarded as foundational — of religion, of the tribe, of the clan, of the capacity to mourn, of the finitude of life, of civilization itself.

Laqueur claims that the work of the dead is to make culture and set the boundaries of our mortality. During the Middle Ages, the churchyard came into being as the dominant resting place of the dead, he said, causing the medieval church to produce an elaborate theology to explain why the bodies of "the special dead -- saints -- deserved extraordinary attention and why it was advantageous for the ordinary dead to be buried near them." 

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A version of this story appeared in the July 15-28, 2016 print issue.

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