Why humans care for the bodies of the dead

Despite the rationality of Diogenes’s logic, it’s unthinkable that we would just throw the corpses of our loved ones over a wall and leave them to the elements. Dead bodies matter because humans have decided that they matter, and they’ve continued to matter over time even as the ways people care for bodies have changed.

Laqueur’s book makes this argument with a dense, detailed sketch of a relatively small slice of time and space: Western Europe from the 18th to 20th centuries. The story begins with churchyards, which “held a near monopoly on burial throughout Christendom … for more than a thousand years, from the Middle Ages to the early 19th century and beyond in some places.” People would be buried (and generally had a legal right to be buried) in the yard of the church of the parish where they lived (or in the church itself if they were wealthy or clergy). This was a messy business. The yards were constantly being churned up as new bodies were buried, and they got lumpy. There weren’t many grave markers, and if there were, they were likely to read “here lies the body,” not a particularly personal epitaph.

“The churchyard was and looked to be a place for remembering a bounded community of the dead who belonged there,” Laquer writes, “rather than a place for individual commemoration and mourning.”