A friend once told me that she could never vote for a Democrat because her mother would turn over in her grave. I thought of this friend while reading The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, by Thomas W. Laqueur. We’ll be doing two or three posts related to this book, which is well worth reading — if you enjoy a long, scholarly work, with lots of classical and other historical references, that will call all sorts of things to mind.
Laqueur reminds us that the dead have power. He starts by discussing Diogenes (412-323 BC), who told his students that when he died, he wanted his body tossed over the city wall where it would be “devoured by beasts.” Since the body would be lifeless, Diogenes argued, it would feel nothing, so its fate did not matter. Objectively speaking, he was right, of course. Left alone, buried, or cremated, a body is soon turned into its constituent elements and disappears. It has no importance.
Yet something in human nature makes it impossible for most of us to behave as if this were true. We honor the dead, we conduct services for the dead and erect memorials to them, we remember the dead and pray for them — even though Martin Luther taught us centuries ago that this is a waste of time. We dream of the dead. Intellectually, we know they no longer exist, but we act as if they did.
This gives the dead power — that’s why my friend could could not vote for Barak Obama, even though she wanted him to be President. More broadly — much more broadly — Laqueur argues that “the dead make civilization on a grand and an intimate scale, everywhere and always: their historical, philosophical, and anthropological weight is enormous and almost without limit and compare.”
This must be true, and all well and good. I prefer living in civilization to living otherwise. But civilizations can go wrong, as happened in the American South, for example, before and long, long after the Civil War. The omnipresent Confederate monuments in that region are an oppressive force still today. That’s why it’s important to remember that the power of the dead is something in our minds, a form of enchantment, as Laqueur might say. There are times when we need to recognize that power for the cultural artifact it is, and ignore it.
Returning to the level of the individual, it may be that some of us, like my Republican friend, allow the dead too much power in our own lives. This is something common-sense seniors should avoid. Our late parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, exes, friends, and enemies truly are dead and gone. They have no objective power over us. It’s nice to remember the dead fondly if we can, but we can’t let them boss us around.