Culture and the care of the dead

Spirituality 1 2016

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." 

Full story available in the print and Kindle editions. Subscribe now.
A version of this story appeared in the July 15-28, 2016 print issue.

Support independent reporting on important issues.

 One family graphic_2016_250x103.jpg

Show comments

NCR Comment code: (Comments can be found below)

Before you can post a comment, you must verify your email address at
Comments from unverified email addresses will be deleted.

  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the original idea will be deleted. NCR reserves the right to close comment threads when discussions are no longer productive.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report abuse" button. Once a comment has been flagged, an NCR staff member will investigate.

For more detailed guidelines, visit our User Guidelines page.

For help on how to post a comment, visit our reference page.

Commenting is available during business hours, Central time, USA. Commenting is not available in the evenings, over weekends and on holidays. More details are available here. Comments are open on NCR's Facebook page.