Back from the Underworld

Marina Warner

  • The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas Laqueur
    Princeton, 711 pp, £27.95, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 15778 8

The work of the dead used to be intercession. It was a mutual striving; if we, who were still alive, prayed for them, they would do what they could for us. Chantries were established – and generously funded – to keep the work going on a daily basis, their members singing at the behest of the dead, and praying to those who, purified in the fires of the afterlife, could now ask God and Mary to reprieve those still suffering for their sins, and help us ahead of time for ours. But when this eschatological perspective weakened, the activity of the dead didn’t come to a stop, which was surprising: the Reformation and the Enlightenment combined to close down (almost) indulgences and remission of sins, but the liveliness of the dead in their claims on us and their presence in the world didn’t dim.

Secularism, reason, scepticism don’t bring disenchantment, Thomas Laqueur argues in this monumental study, the harvest of more than ten years’ concentrated exploring of archives, tombstones, battlefields and furnace design. Laqueur principally scrutinises developments since around 1700, mostly in England, but he places them in a very longue durée (he likes the phrase ‘deep time’) and embeds modern inventions, such as the urban garden cemetery, the war memorial in situ, and the crematorium, in a far-reaching and widely geographical cultural history that ranges from the Towers of Silence of the Zoroastrians, where the loved one was left to be pecked clean by vultures, to the tragedy of Antigone, who disobeys the law when she cannot accept that her brother Polynices should suffer a similar fate on the plain outside Thebes.

The Work of the Dead is packed with information, surprises, unaccustomed lore and learning, and Laqueur shows throughout a sturdy curiosity, as he digs unflinchingly around and into his chosen topic (in this respect it follows on from his previous magnum opus on the history of masturbation). He adopts the Annales school’s panoramic sweep, punctuated by boreholes giving microscopically detailed analyses of samples from the soil of social history: he discusses the shocking exclusion of Dissenters, Catholics, suicides and unbaptised babies from their local parish churchyard, and the long acrimonious wrangles and even riots that sometimes ensued when vicars tried to impose their rules of admission, and parishioners rejected them. He quotes in close-up from a heart-wrenching sequence of letters between a farmhand, Emily Chitticks, and her sweetheart, Private Will Martin; five of the 23 letters she wrote were returned, inscribed KILLED. In one, she told him: ‘I have dreamt that you were back home with me dear and the most strange thing about them, you are always in civilian clothes when I dream of you & and I have never seen you in those dear … I hope that will come true.’ When he was killed, in March 1917, she began the long struggle to find the whereabouts of his body. Though bits of news raised her hopes, he was declared missing along with thousands of others in the Battle of the Somme. She asked to be buried with the bundle of their letters.

Burial practices and ceremonies that seem immemorial to us now were new-fangled and strange not that long ago, it turns out: it is not known who proposed the tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, and many were doubtful about the prospect (not British enough, or Protestant). But the process went ahead, with much ritual: bags of bones from four unidentified victims of the battlefield were placed on a table; then, at midnight, a general wearing a blindfold picked one lot of remains; they were sent under escort across the Channel on a destroyer, and from Dover ‘guarded as the most precious of relics until the ceremonies on the next day’. Not since Henry V’s bones were brought back from France (after his body had been boiled to clean them) can there have been such a solemn translation. The Cenotaph in the Mall – which is empty – was dedicated the same day. Edwin Lutyens only provided a sketch, as he thought it was going to be temporary. No one had thought this idea would catch on either (again too foreign, too Catholic). But it did, resoundingly. The idea of honouring the Unknown Soldier recurred around the same time everywhere, Laqueur tells us. Such monuments express the hope that no one will be left out: Old Hamlet will not return to call out reproachfully ‘Remember me’; there will be no 13th fairy to disrupt the peace and ask for vengeance.

Laqueur’s scrupulous historical foraging also brings centre stage some extraordinary characters who, in the name of progress, hygiene, classical ideals and ancestral custom, flung themselves into long disputes that eventually led to current, commonly held tenets about the attentions fitting to a corpse. William Price, d.1893, was an arch druid in Wales, a surgeon, a Chartist, a vegetarian, a philoprogenetive advocate of free love, who called his child, born in his late years, Jesu Grist (sic). When the baby died, he tried to burn him on a pyre, according to ancient Celtic custom (he claimed). He tried again, when another of his many children died. After each attempt, he was charged, but unexpectedly, he was in tune with the zeitgeist and found not guilty. The Daily Telegraph stated that it would be ‘highly advantageous to the cause of sanitary reform if the fantastic tricks recently played by an eccentric Welsh octogenarian … became indirectly the means to bring … a little more common sense to bear … on the important subject of cremation’.

Yet, entertaining as all this is, in a macabre key, the dead are hard to think about – and, in many ways, to read about. Unlike animals, which Lévi-Strauss declared were not only good to eat but bon à penser, too, I found that I averted my eyes, so to speak, several times as I was reading this book. Not because of the infinite and irreversible sadness of mortality, or because of the grue, the fetor, the decay, the pervasive morbidity – though Laqueur’s gallows humour about scientific successes in the calcination of corpses can be a bit strong – but because the dead present an enigma that can’t be grasped: they are always there in mind, they come back in dreams, live in memory, and if they don’t, if they’re forgotten as so many millions of them must be, that is even more disturbing, somehow reprehensible. The disappeared are the unquietest ghosts. Simone Weil writes that the Iliad is a poem that shows how ‘force … turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.’ But Laqueur is surely right to inquire why that thing, the ‘disenchanted corpse … bereft, vulnerable, abject’, is a very different kind of thing from the cushion I am sitting on or even my iPad (which keeps giving signs of a mind of its own). I have always liked Mme du Deffand’s comment, when asked if she believed in ghosts. A philosopher and a free thinker, she even so replied: ‘Non, mais j’en ai peur.’ (‘No, but I am frightened of them.’)

The book keeps returning to the conundrum perfectly set by Diogenes, when he said that after his death, his body should be tossed over a wall for dogs to eat. This is logical, rational, perhaps even ecological (Laqueur discusses many suggestions about using mortal remains for compost and fertiliser), but no society has taken the Cynic philosopher’s advice (the Parsee towers are a place apart), and when the dead are left in the street, the sight – the neglect – rightly inspires horror and shame in all who know of it. Yet, if you believe in a soul, why should the husk matter? And conversely, if you believe that there is nothing more, then the corpse is not a person either, let alone that person. But every instinct, every human feeling in the cultural world Laqueur writes about goes against Diogenes.

Since Derek Parfit’s death, there has been discussion about his Buddhist sympathies, because he countered conventional ideas about the integrity of a person over time, and closes Reasons and Persons with a suggestive musing on a Buddhist term for an individual, ‘santana, a “stream”’. It’s interesting to contrast this idea with the picture that forms from Laqueur’s scrupulous sifting of the archives: the work we feel the dead ask us to perform is bound up inextricably with our prevailing view of the person as an integer – not a stream. The manner of our leaving the world defines us as unique selves, continuously unified from birth to death. In this perspective, Laqueur’s book presents a continuation of other mighty endeavours: Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity and Jerrold Seigel’s The Idea of the Self, both studies in what it means to be an individual. In answer to this, the dwindling of trust in an immortal soul has shifted the onus onto the perishable body, with proportionately highly wrought standards of respect owed to that ambiguous thing.

In the 16th century, the medical cabinets of universities such as Bologna and Florence contained wax models of bodies for study; these models contained human body parts, and sometimes whole bodies were conserved. A pope had expressly given permission for such uses of the dead, in the interests of knowledge; yet in 18th-century England, Hogarth’s horrific scene of an autopsy (where a dog is lapping up the discarded innards), shows that to be used for science was dreadful, fitting punishment of the damned in the here and now, and medical tomb-robbers set so much horror and disgust reverberating that Mary Shelley conceived her monster as made from different body parts. Since then, reverence for the mortal body in its final dissolution has been continuously rising; the reason lies in its compact with individuality, a compact reaffirmed by DNA, iris scanning and other forensic recognition techniques that presuppose absolute uniqueness.

This singular self has its habitation (the body) and a name, and these are attached in death to the arc of a story over time, which posthumous acts of memorialisation attempt to bring to an honourable and coherent conclusion. Laqueur uses the word ‘dénouement’ to describe this goal. He avoids the word ‘closure’, as used by therapists. Obsequies and customary rites have become necessary to what is more of a nouement – a tying up of loose ends. The playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker has recalled the figure of the ‘Designated Mourner’, as dramatised by Wallace Shawn in his play of 1996, in relation to current crises, someone who, as in many countries today (Greece and Egypt, for example), takes on the role – the bardic, priestly role – of reciting the life and deeds of the dead person. Obituaries are not, however, as old a custom as one might assume, Laqueur tells us, and the trend today is moving towards acts of public mourning which can travel far and wide online: the memorial which was set up at Tate Britain to Khadija Saye, the young artist-photographer who died with her mother in the Grenfell fire, and the ode that Ben Okri wrote the same night are instances.

If any part is missing in the triangulation of body, name and mourning ceremony an injury has been done. This is one reason for the miasma that hangs over Grenfell Tower and maddens the survivors. A tenant cries out: ‘Why can’t I have my family back?’ ‘We are doing our utmost best,’ says one of the many volunteers, ‘to get their loved ones back.’ Forensic teams – police and others – have been conducting a ‘finger-tip search’ through the ashes to find remains which can then be analysed for DNA and restored to the bereaved. The blackened building, with its flayed grid and blind windows, may look like a ruin of war, but it also looms like a macabre charnel house chimney, a huge tomb of unidentified and unsolemnised dead. It stands like a stele, the ancient grave markers which were inscribed with the names of their occupants, often calling out to the passers-by: siste viator (‘stay, wayfarer’) – the voices of the dead imagined to be speaking still and demanding attention.

The dead establish community and cultural memory, and forms of disposal offer a vision of society that’s both a testimony and a self-portrait. Grenfell Tower has become a monument to the precariat, in this country, now. In All the Names (1997), his poignant novel about the yearning to encompass everyone, José Saramago issues a warning. The protagonist tries to stop a nurse washing a minor scrape on his knee, but she says: ‘No no, I have to clean them.’ He replies: ‘Once mine have healed, they’ll leave nothing but a few small scars that will disappear in time.’ To which the nurse answers: ‘Ah, yes, wounds heal over on the body, but in the report they always always stay open, they neither close up nor disappear.’

*

In the course of the story Laqueur tells, death is a constant scandal against the living, but the wounds are becoming more visible. Tranquil, neighbourly country churchyards, such as the ones painted by Constable and elegised by Thomas Gray, were superseded by huge cemeteries in urban parklands, which no longer united the dead by faith or birth and dwelling place but according to the newer bonds of wealth, occupation and social status. Some of the book’s most powerful passages turn to the killing fields and the enormous spooky cemeteries of the Somme created after the First World War was over. These entailed the exhumation of hundreds of bodies, the assiduous identification and reassembly of parts, and their reburial in solemn serried rows, to depict the war as awful, yet sublime, and its victims as heroic and their deaths worthwhile. Through these stately monuments and encyclopedic inventories, the nation cleaned up the story of the war. ‘This constituted an aesthetic obfuscation of reality,’ Laqueur recognises, ‘But there was no alternative. As the history of sites of horror makes clear, they cannot remain as they were to become shrines to themselves. It was also impossible not to memorialise the dead of war.’ The museums at Auschwitz and other concentration camps don’t quite bear out his statement, as he knows (he has written powerfully about them), but the mud-churned, incinerated fields of the Somme couldn’t be preserved as they were.

These cemeteries also established several principles that have become fundamental to the work of the dead in modern times: first a grave has to contain a body; when the body – the person – was lost, the name would sometimes make up for its absence, appearing on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, for example, among the long lists chiselled into stone to ‘live for ever more’. Memorial tablets and cairns spread through all the countries involved in that war and the next: often marked out by bombshells, rockets and other weapons. But a new, sacralising feature was added to the honour paid to the dead: the cemeteries and memorials were built where the victims had fallen, or at least nearby. The place became part of the commemoration: as in medieval pilgrimage to the site of Thomas à Becket’s murder, or modern pilgrimage to the Church of the Spilled Blood in St Petersburg, where the cobbled pavement on which Alexander II was shot and fatally wounded in 1881 is enshrined in situ in the new church’s floor. In 2014, the artist Chloe Dewe Mathews travelled to the places in France where deserters had been executed and took a photograph at first light of the empty field; the resulting sequence, Shot at Dawn, is one of the most powerful acts of memory the centenary inspired. Hic jacet mattered, and still matters, in this new, secular form of ritual enchantment.

Some families resisted the vast new necropolises, and smuggled back their dead – in fishing boats, or rolled up in carpets – rather than let them lie in a corner of a foreign field, however much ‘a body of England’s’ might consecrate and alter its character. But since then, the exact place of death has taken hold of people’s imaginations: wayside shrines spring up, with cards and messages and bouquets and favourite objects attached to trees or motorway barriers or set against walls where a fatal accident or murder has taken place; the spot above the tunnel in Paris where Princess Diana died is now a cult site; and in London white bicycles, covered in flowers, are set up where a cyclist has died – as both memorial and protest.

The battlefield/graveyard can be moved and remade – on a smaller scale. Every year on Armistice Day, tiny tombs, decorated with poppies, regimental colours and badges, and bearing the names of all the soldiers who died in the various campaigns, are laid out all around Westminster Abbey, filling the lawns on either side of the path. These ceremonies echo earlier religious re-enactments – the Temple of Jerusalem rebuilt in replica, Calvary reprised in the Stations of the Cross. Laqueur reproduces in colour the IMAX style spectacular poppy installation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red; when the artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper cascaded thousands of scarlet ceramic sculptures from the battlements of the Tower of London (888,246, to be precise, one for each of the fallen) to mark the centenary of the First World War, they imported the significance of massacre to a new site, and it met with huge popular acclaim. Alongside such new national rites, cinema plays an increasingly vivid role in bringing the dead before us again, and narrating the past: sometimes it is the recent past, as in the case of Apocalypse Now (1979); in other, more distant cases, it has the effect of closing the gap of time. Twelve Years a Slave and the current blockbuster Dunkirk follow in this memorial tradition, as does the TV historian Dan Snow, when he advocates ‘augmented reality software’ to help us relive Passchendaele. These are national epics, reckonings wrought with all the latest resources of ‘full immersion’ – the equivalent of re-enacting the Passion of Christ in Seville’s Semana Santa with live performances by actors and maximum real-life verisimilitude in the images.

Some memorials try to include everyone, victims and perpetrators, from all sides of the conflict. Homer honours the dead on both sides in the Trojan War and he gives us more than two hundred names – Alice Oswald opens her fine ‘excavation’ of the Iliad, which is explicitly called Memorial, by listing them. But this list, horribly long as it is, does not remember all who died at Troy. The roll call of the fallen doesn’t include women, for a start. Or children. By contrast, the Graves Registration Commission/War Graves Commission set out to name every single person who died in the First World War, and, often, the animals, too; as they compiled their records, they paid far more attention to the corpse of each soldier/ nurse/orderly/horse than the strategists had done to their living selves. Civilians are harder to count – they vanish from the registers for various reasons. As at Grenfell Tower, collateral damage doesn’t show up in databases as accurately as enlisted men on army muster rolls. Laqueur quotes the spare, fierce poem that Zbigniew Herbert wrote after martial law was imposed in Poland in December 1981, which is called ‘Mr Cogito on the Need for Precision’. The poem speaks far beyond the occasion of its making:

But in these matters
Accuracy is necessary
One cannot get it wrong
Even in a single case
In spite of everything
We are our brothers’ keepers.

‘We are our brothers’ keepers,’ and the way we can watch out for one another is by attending to the specificity of each life and person. The most surprising – to my mind at least – revelation in The Work of the Dead is that the precision of archiving by the clerisies of the past and the digital databases of the present are deeply entangled with the history of intimacy and personal value. Mr Cogito wants to know where someone’s mortal remains might be, Laqueur writes, ‘because beginning in the late 19th century ordinary people wanted to know … The massive records of the Great War bear witness to both the technology and the emotional infrastructure that made knowing possible and necessary.’ Ordinary people wanted to know and they can know because a combination of skills has made it more feasible than ever before. It is very sad – and horrible – that the search for the body of Corrie McKeague, the RAF gunner who disappeared last year, has finally been called off, after tons of rubbish in the landfill where he was buried have been sifted unavailingly. Such an undertaking couldn’t even have been thought of before current electronics (his final whereabouts were tracked on his phone). For the same reasons, it has become possible to demand retrospective interventions on the long dead. The exhumation of Salvador Dalí, to prove a paternity suit, exemplifies this trend (he was found to be whole and entire, his moustache still angled at ten past ten – a miracle!).

Science weirdly spurs on the pursuit of the disenchanted corpse, carrying us into invisible and impalpable dimensions of experience. The invention of telegraphy and photography were essential to psychic experiments to bring back the dead, and after the First World War many survivors visited high street mediums like Ada Deane and William Hope, to hear news from the other side. The pages of spirit photograph albums reveal how many varieties of affectionate ties held people together, as the bereaved sought to contact lost loved ones: siblings, same-sex friendships and intergenerational bonds are all caught by the absurd pathos of the ghost portraits and rapped out messages. Séances seem to have acted as therapeutic consolation: the dead reported they were very happy where they were, in the non-religious uplands of spiritualist heaven, according to the reports the revenants brought to the living. The anthropologist William A. Christian Jr has amassed an extraordinary collection of photographs collaged on postcards to circulate and prolong memories of the absent, the missing and the dead. His recent study, The Stranger, the Tears, the Photograph, the Touch: Divine Presence in Spain and Europe since 1500, supports Laqueur’s accounts of the many ways new institutions, like the postal service, and new technologies, like photography, have been recruited to deal with death.[*] The dead can clamour more urgently for our attention today than they did because of contemporary advances, not in spite of them.

In his third part, ‘Names of the Dead’, Laqueur turns to ‘necronominalism’. Parfit’s thoughts again show up the contrast between humanist ideals of the individual self and the premises of the Buddha, who declared that a name is ‘only a name, for no person is found there … There exists no Individual, it is only a conventional name given to a set to elements.’ Opposing this view, the Mormons reign supreme, the champion archivists of people who have been and gone; in a volume filled with brain-toppling towers of numbers, these are among the most startling. The Utah genealogists aim to create a community in death, in the same way as a village churchyard did, but theirs – the Church of Latter Day Saints – is global. The Mormons perform retrospective baptisms, a practice that has caused protests when, for example, Jewish figures like Anne Frank have been made ‘saints’. Nevertheless necronominalism is the order of existence here in the West, and our own magical thinking underlies the public chanting of the names of the victims of Aids or of 9/11 – the ritual strives both to exorcise the horror and to summon the vanished back to memory.

Laqueur’s research for this book over the last decade couldn’t take stock of the effect of social media on the culture of mortal remains, but he clearly anticipates the consequences of the unprecedented access to information that they offer. On the one hand, bureaucratic data-gathering and censuses act as forms of surveillance and control, abolishing privacy and individual rights, and on the other they offer unforeseen opportunities for pursuing personal lines of inquiry and crafting subjectivities and inclinations (a recent women’s questionnaire I was sent included 26 different genders with a blank box if none of the above applied). At the same time a story can now move so fast and become so widely accepted that it sweeps away hints and traces of alternatives, and it’s then tough to redraft and dislodge. Reckoning with these standardised fables convenues (as Voltaire quipped about history in general) sets a compelling task for thinkers and writers in all fields, not only history. Unearthing hitherto unheard voices and silenced stories has become a central stratagem of the living in relation to the hubbub of the endless data archive we live with. ‘Not just some, but all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and fascination with mortality – by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead,’ Margaret Atwood suggested in her fine Empson Lectures. The aim is often redress, redress achieved through imaginative acts of memory, through exhuming the dead, as in Zong!, a remarkable prose-poem written in 2008 by M. NourbeSe Philip, which takes off from the notorious incident in 1781 when the captain of the slave ship Zong threw 133 slaves overboard and then claimed insurance on their loss. Using only the words of the surviving legal report, Philip cuts them up, scrambles and rearticulates them to produce a chorale of voices, rising on the page as if from the sea, while along the bottom of the page, she runs a litany of names from the regions in Africa they might have come from – and to which she, as a Trinidadian-Canadian, also traces her descent. Zong! deliberately turns a dry judicial decision into an anthem, a multi-vocal lament and act of mourning and resistance to historical amnesia on behalf of a group of the utterly disappeared. She has performed it solo and also with a chorus, and the recitation takes on the character of a ceremony, a conjuration – again, a secularisation of an ancient mode of memorialising, and a very contemporary way of defining a life by the momentousness of its end.

In accordance with the fluid subjectivities offered by technology, the contemporary desire to be reunited with the body of the loved one has moved into a more personal, subjective key: the urn or small casket in which what’s left might be placed is often taken home for the family to hold private, innovatory rituals – carrying them back to a country the dead left a long time ago, or scattering the ashes in a favourite spot – Laqueur mentions a group of friends choosing a tree they liked to pee against on camping trips. He is concerned with these continuities and innovations.

Bespoke funeral rites are increasingly available: Walt Disney was an early subject of deep freezing for eternity, a modern form of pharaonic dream; in 1996, two years after he died, the embalmed body of the artist Ed Kienholz, was provided with a dollar, a bottle of red wine, a pack of cards and the ashes of his dog, set up at the wheel of his vintage Packard, and then allowed to drift and fall into the grave to the sound of bagpipes. More soberingly, Laqueur’s narrative also illuminates how and why the distressing struggle over the dying baby Charlie Gard was so acute. In respect to the dead and dying, personal feelings have been prevailing ever more strongly over institutional bodies’ authority; social media, with some members of the press clamouring support, join forces to claim rights over the bodies of loved ones.

The book comes to its close with open-ended reflections on the new difficulties, such as the question of ‘the right to die’, and speculation about the protracted business of dying in the future. The past is prologue, and Laqueur’s line of argument promises that increasing private pressure will determine the fate of mortal remains. In her tightly coiled new novel, Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie reimagines Antigone in relation to jihadism today.[†] If Creon had any support in the past, her dramatic reworking convinces us that, even in these extreme circumstances, twitter storms could fall upon him from every side; the call of the dead on the living for honour to be paid to the body, the seemingly indissoluble union of personhood and body in a supposed secular age, and the privatisation of social structures that used to help contain the passions of love and grief and desire mean that Antigone is more than ever a heroine of our time.

[*] Central European University Press, 310 pp., £44, March, 978 6 15 522529 1.

[†] Bloomsbury, 272 pp., £16.99, August, 978 1 4088 8677 9.