Why Do We Care for the Dead?
Swarthmore College. Dept. of History
Place of Publication
2014-2015 Paul Beik Memorial Lecture
Table of Contents
In the beginning there was the dead body: lifeless matter, soon to decay, from which all that was human had fled. Almost three thousand years ago Diogenes the Cynic told his students that when he died he wanted his corpse to be tossed over the wall for beasts to eat. He was gone; it did not matter to him. This talk asks why we have refused his example and it answers the question in two connected registers, first anthropological and then historical. Our species lives with its dead, materially and imaginatively; caring for them is the sign of our emergence from the order of nature into culture. It is the primal expression of our consciousness of temporality. The Dead make civilization on a grand and an intimate scale, everywhere and always but also in particular places, in particular times and in particular ways. The talk moves to the level of historical explanation and offers brief answers to three questions. Where are the dead?: how did the dominant resting place of the dead—the churchyard—come into being during the middle ages and why did the modern cemetery largely supplanted it. Who are the dead?: how and why since the nineteenth century have we come to gather the names of the dead on great lists and memorials and conversely why is being buried without a name has become so disturbing. Finally, What are the dead?: how did technologically sophisticated cremation—the rendering of the dead into indistinguishable inorganic matter—begin as a modernist fantasy of stripping death of its history and why did the project ultimately fail. Even the ashes of the Shoah meant to obliterate its victims have been re-inscribed in culture.