Monday, March 14, 2016

"Bring out yer dead, bring out yer dead..."

A fascinating new book explains how where you end up dead could- and to an extent, still can- be used to regulate how you live:
After being asked what he would like to have done with his body after he died, the Greek philosopher Diogenes replied that he wanted it thrown out for animals to devour. Thousands of years later, his answer can still shock. Thomas Laqueur explains why in his sweeping history of the way humans have grappled with death—an abstract terror made concrete by the bodies that remain when the dead have passed on. Combining anthropological reflections on the cultural functions of the dead with historical investigations of the shifting ways their bodies have been treated, Laqueur uses the stubborn resistance to Diogenes’ provocation to explore the world the dead left behind. 
Timothy Shenk: “Around 1800,” you write, “a thousand-year-old regime of the dead began to crumble.” The new order would be defined by the cemetery, and it has persisted into the present—so much so that it can be difficult to imagine an alternative. What was the earlier system that we lost? 
Thomas Laqueur:  Edward Gibbon, the great historian of the fall of Rome, identified the rise of Christianity with a new order of the dead. After the conversion of Constantine in 325 AD, emperors and generals “devoutly visited the sepulchers of a tent-maker and a fisherman,” and other martyrs at churches like St. Peter’s in Rome. Indeed Christian burial around the bodies of the special dead often preceded churches themselves which then came to be built on these sacred sites. Gradually churches came to have churchyards which gathered together the dead of the community over the generations. The greatest penalty of excommunication became exclusion from that space: the only space in which one could be buried as a human being. To be cast out meant to be buried like a dog. So in the old order there was only one place for the body—the churchyard—to which access was guarded by ecclesiastical authorities who also attended to the dying and prayed for their souls. The thousand-year-old regime was one in which the dead belonged to priests and not as in classical antiquity to families or on occasion to the state...

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