Grave Matters

October 10, 2012
By: Frank Browning
Marcus Hanschen stands in an old European library.
Marcus Hanschen

The way my mother told the story, it was only by the frailest of good fortune that her father and all his descendants, herself included, came to exist. On a gloomy spring day not long after the Civil War, her grandfather had been plowing a grown-over field when he unearthed a large gray stone covering an unmarked grave. The word cholera had been chipped into the rock. Inside were the visible remains of a not-fully-rotted corpse. Her grandfather detached his plow horses and ran as fast as he could. Cholera germs, many people believed, survived long after the death of their victims and could continue to infect the unwary traveler for decades.

“That’s a great story,” Berkeley historian Thomas Laqueur told me, but what he found interesting wasn’t the disease. “Cholera is almost always transmitted by feces in the drinking water; even in the 19th century people knew that.” What fascinated him was the anonymity of the grave, in a grown-over pocket of a larger abandoned and forgotten cemetery.

Lately, Laqueur has been spending a lot of time in graveyards and sepulchers, where most of our bodies will eventually go. He’s been trekking around the burial grounds of Europe, Africa, Asia, and America for more than a decade, studying their forms, reading the markings posted by the survivors.

Although he has spent the better part of his scholarly career writing about how political and ecclesiastical powers have regarded human bodies, his focus has mostly concerned the living. His research has examined physiology, sex, gender, and even that most universal of sexual acts, masturbation—or, more politely, “solitary sex.” How all of these inquiries led him to graveyards, and what he calls necro-geography, makes perfect sense, he says. The disposition of our collective dead, Laqueur believes, reveals volumes about the fears, the mores, and most importantly, the mythologies we humans have invented to regulate what we do with our living bodies. States and religions have had “epochal struggles for control over the dead body,” he asserts, in much the same way that they “maintained a particular order” over the living.

Before we can begin to evaluate our rights and responsibilities to the dead, says Laqueur, we first need to understand our rights and responsibilities to the living. We take it for granted that we have authority over our own persons, but this right was conferred rather recently.

It was during the Enlightenment when the notion of individual autonomy flowered. In the late 17th century, John Locke developed the American and Anglo-Saxon principles of personal freedom, when he elaborated in Chapter 5 of his Second Treatise of Civil Government that “every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself.” Or, it’s my body and I’ll do as I want to. Locke was primarily writing about each individual’s right to the use of his own labor, but as he develops the treatise, it’s also clear that all of us possess full authority over our own bodies.

Well, not full authority—for John Locke was a devout Christian.

Locke wrote later in the Second Treatise, “Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.” Here is where the individual ownership of one’s body—living or dead—turns slippery. In the civil, secular world, Locke wanted to be absolutely clear that no man—Locke didn’t speak about women—can be granted ownership of another’s body. But as a Christian, Locke did not question God’s higher authority over all humans. First came man’s duty to respect all the natural gifts of God—land, water, animals, and the fruits thereof, among which he clearly saw our human bodies as sacred and temporary gifts from the Divine. Yes, John Locke was a political liberal who cast aside “the great chain of being” as well as the divine right of kings, in favor of individual freedom and autonomy. But as a faithful Christian, John Locke would never have countenanced what he considered the desecration of the body.

But what do we, and what did he mean by desecration? Desecration in its most literal sense means depriving any object or person of its sacred character, be it living or dead. The wave of tattoos and other body modifications that have swept the world in recent decades would certainly have been included in Locke’s list of desecrations, as they would have for most people in the Judeo-Christian tradition dating back to the Book of Leviticus in the Bible. So, too, would have been dressing in clothes contrary to conventional ideas of male and female genders. Engaging in unsanctioned sexual activity, either homosexual or heterosexual, constituted an especially grave desecration of the living body.

For the Christians of Locke’s era, full personal ownership of your body had its limits. [Note 1]

But such “desecrations” weren’t only a problem for devout Christians, they were equally grave offenses for the secularists who were lighting the intellectual lamps of the Enlightenment. If the 18th century opened the era when scientific method and reason flourished, and when, as Laqueur says, “we start owning our bodies,” it is also the period when the responsibilities associated with body ownership created a vast array of new restrictive proscriptions and laws against a range of sexual and social behaviors. [Note 2]

In his books, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud and Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, Laqueur tracks the profound changes that occurred in our understanding of both gender and physical sexuality. [Note 3] Masturbation, for example, had largely been regarded by the church as little more than a minor weed in the garden of human perversity, until the appearance around 1712 in London of a grim quasi-medical tract entitled, Onania: or, the heinous sin of self-pollution and all its frightful consequences…. Onania turned into a wildfire best seller, first in England, then Protestant Switzerland, France, and almost everywhere in America. It even led Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the intellectual godfather of both the French and American Revolutions, to rail against onanism’s dangers to citizens of a free republic, and to warn parents never to allow a young man to go to bed alone in a darkened room. [Note 4]

Unrestrained pursuit of pleasure, as evidenced in novels such as Moll Flanders and Tom Jones, posed threats not merely to godliness but to civil society itself. Even the abuses of laissez-faire capitalism, and the twin horrors of rural famine and the murderous industrial mill were questioned. Against all that, the secularist philosophers linked arms with the church fathers in a bid to guarantee order across society from the boudoir to the grain fields to the counting house. At the core of it was the perceived necessity to impose a new kind of discipline over the individual body.

Yet if these perceived desecrations of the living body provoked panic and led to new codified restrictions on personal behavior, concern over the dead body also began to grow. Though gradually losing ground to civil authorities over the living, the church held fast to its franchise over disposition of dead bodies. [Note 5]

Before prowling around graveyards, Laqueur had long believed that concerns over personal identity ended with death. Yet the disposition of dead bodies had long fascinated him. Across all cultures back to the beginning of recorded time, from Bronze Age mounds to Ethiopian steles atop funerary chambers, Laqueur found that marking the territory of the dead seemed even more important than erecting monuments to the living. Who we were, what we were, who was important, who was cast out—all these remained as important in death as they were in life, in an endless struggle for the control of human memory.

He starts with Julian the Apostate, the last non-Christian Roman ruler who tried to straddle both religions and entombed a Christian saint into the ancient grove of Apollo. Imagine the consequences if you started building temples to Dionysus or Aphrodite in Arlington National Cemetery, or offering urns to Diana in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Julian pleased neither the pagans nor the Christians, and he quickly fell from power.

Laqueur picks up the story. “Certain monks start living amongst the dead and then the real story for the next three or four centuries is the creation of a whole new Christian necro-geography…. They gather Christian bodies together in the churchyards, and the church is basically created around the dead. The dead were there first—and then came the building of the church.”

It’s this accumulation of the corpses—of dead Christian bodies, well marked and identified—that in the early stages of the religion valorized and confirmed the importance of its churches, just as a millennium and a half later the shredded bodies of Yankee soldiers would convert Gettysburg and Arlington into monumental memory gardens. Laqueur’s new work tracks this consecration in memory gardens around the world. In every case, regardless of religion or hallowed myth, he finds that what is key is not simply the grandeur of a garden’s design, but the presence of bodies—bodies that in life conformed to the right religion, the right values, the right customs, and the right behaviors. Planting the bodies of “our people” makes the gardens sacred.

The dead ensure memory, without which there is no history. And those who own memory control history.

Still, how could so many people care about actual corpses? There are religions that teach that the human body is “in God’s image” and thus sacred, but how do you explain everyone else?

There’s a long pause in our conversation. Laqueur asks if I remember the story about Diogenes the Cynic. I confess I don’t.

“Diogenes is asked by his students, ‘What will we do with your dead body, master?’ He says, ‘Well, toss it over the wall.’

“They answer, ‘That’s horrible. We can’t do that. You’ll be eaten by beasts.’

‘Well, you’re right. So give me a stick and I will beat them off.’

“‘But master you’ll be dead and you won’t notice the beasts and you won’t be able to keep them away.’

“‘That’s right, and that’s why it doesn’t make any difference what you do with my body.’

“This story gets repeated,” Laqueur says. St. Augustine tells it. Sir Thomas Browne (famed author of the 17th-century treatise Urn Burial) tells it. Nearly everyone at some level says we shouldn’t care about used-up body parts. “And then, the rest of civilization says ‘except …’ or ‘but …’ we really do care.”

Take the graveyards: the grand memorial cemeteries like Père-Lachaise in Paris or the magnificent memorials to the ancient kings of Denmark outside Copenhagen. The graveyard—be it for saints, soldiers, or kings—emerged, as Laqueur puts it, as “the gold standard” for a place of national memory.

But what about the others, the millions left to rot on battlefields or dumped into the charnel houses of collective tombs? What about the bodies deposited in unmarked paupers’ graves? Or the terrifying cholera grave exposed by my mother’s grandfather in Kentucky. Or those reduced to ashes, left in a coffee can in the closet? These bodies were often more troublesome, even more terrifying, but for more complicated reasons, says Laqueur.

These were the abject bodies, to take a phrase from Berkeley philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler. They were the bodies that, while alive, were unacknowledged for a host of reasons: outlawed sexual appetites; incorrect or “inappropriate” dress or gender presentation; suspect cultural or political loyalties; heretical faiths or outright atheism; and of course terrifying diseases such as cholera or sundry plagues. For all these reasons and more, such people had been cast out beyond conventional sacred or civic boundaries. In short, they had not been regarded as one of “us” in life, and in death they could not be remembered as one of “ours.” [Note 6]

That is all in the past, we moderns respond, psychic artifacts from an age of fear and superstition that preceded science and rationalism. Today most tolerant people believe that the constraints on our living identities by social convention and by our founding faiths have largely fallen away.

Laqueur isn’t so sure. We continue to betray residual fear and superstition, he says, in our treatment of rotting remains. Often our anxieties surface obliquely through the collective subconscious of popular culture. He brings up the recent cascade of vampire and zombie tales—not least among them the two smash TV series True Blood and The Walking Dead. Laqueur reminds me that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), along with John William Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and a flurry of Gothic novels that followed, were then, too, written by and aimed at a modern educated elite. The Industrial Revolution led to mechanized armies capable of killing vast numbers of people, whose remains could be shoveled into collective, unmarked trenches—even those who were unconscious but not dead and were buried alive, further feeding the fear of vengeful vampires and zombies. [Note 7]

For the faithful or even quasi-believers, all of these associated terrors came from the influence of Enlightenment philosophes who embraced ideas of personal freedom in a fully secular context. The great power of kings and bishops was withering in congresses and parliaments on both sides of the Atlantic. The sacred order by which the faithful had found protection from the hostile forces of Nature—not to mention insurance against the eternal flames of Hell—began to fall away.

“At the same time,” Laqueur says, “there’s a huge effort to re-socialize both the sexed body and the dead body.” From this, new definitions of sexuality emerge, strict categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality are invented, laws against cross-dressing and violation of gender rules are enacted—and public memorialization of the dead creates the magnificent memory parks of Europe and America. The great fear was that if individuals were really let free to follow their own impulses and desires, chaos could reign. Men and women could run rampant through the streets. Celebrating individual pleasure, they could generate uncontrollable epidemics, only to expire in solitary death. Then their restless corpses could return to haunt us forever.

As it happened, a more interesting story of my great-grandfather’s life and death replaced the one my mother told me. Some years after coming across the cholera grave, he developed a severe case of pneumonia and fell into a coma. A local doctor was called, who found him cool to the touch. Unable to detect a heartbeat, the doctor pronounced him dead.

In those days before embalming, funerals took place quickly. Just as the undertaker was about to nail the lid on the coffin, Great-grandfather mustered all his strength to move his left little finger. In fact he was not dead. He understood everything that was taking place around him, but was so weak that he could neither speak nor move. Great-grandfather was lifted out of the coffin and taken back to bed where, within a few days, he began to recover.

Note 1: Those paying attention to various state campaigns to roll back abortion rights and prevent same-sex marriage know that this issue has yet to be resolved nearly four centuries later.

Note 2: Pleasures designated “sodomitical,” which could include any unapproved oral or anal contact between men, be­tween women, or even between men and women, remained imprisonable offenses in this country until 2003.

Note 3: Since the time of the great Roman doctor Galen until the late 18th century, men and women were regarded as possessing the same sexual bodies. Women were presumed to have a weaker, “cooler” version of the default male body. Remarkably well drawn anatomical diagrams used until the end of the 18th century indicated that both men and women pos­sessed testicles—originally labeled orcheis in Latin. Had any of our 18th-century forbears time-traveled to read Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography, they would surely have been shocked to discover that, lacking the correct hormonal soup in the uterus, we would all by default be female.

Note 4: “Whatever he may do, a young man’s worst enemy is himself, and this is an enemy we cannot avoid,” Rousseau wrote in Emile, cited by Laqueur. “Therefore, watch carefully over the young man; he can protect himself from all other foes, but it is for you to protect him against himself. Never leave him night or day; or at least share his room; never let him to bed till he is sleepy, and let him rise as soon as he wakes. Distrust instinct as soon as you cease to rely altogether upon it. Instinct was good while he acted under its guidance only; now that he is the midst of human institutions, instinct is not to be trusted. It must not be destroyed, it must be controlled, which is perhaps a more difficult matter. It would be very dangerous if instinct taught your pupil to divert these senses and to supplement the occasions for satisfying them. If once he acquires this dangerous supplement he is lost.” [emphasis added] 

Note 5: Degradation or improper disposal of dead flesh, even at the request of the deceased, can still today constitute a criminal offense in certain jurisdictions. The German artist Gunther Von Hagens discovered this when the British government threatened him with criminal prosecution in 2003 over a public autopsy he performed for his infamous “plasticized cadavers.”

Note 6: Convenient as it might seem to suppose that all of that is a tale of times past, the AIDS epidemic reminds us otherwise. The right-wing attorney Roy Cohn, actors Anthony Perkins and Rock Hudson, tennis star Arthur Ashe, and boxer Esteban de Jesús were but a handful of prominent Americans who battled hard to keep their illness secret and whose executors fought to cleanse their obituaries. A rise in cremation in the U.S. has been linked with shame over drug abuse and AIDS deaths. In Africa, Ibo chieftains whose deaths were considered shameful were at times even denied burial.

Note 7: No one, on the other hand, has meditated so sublimely—if excessively—on the location and destiny of errant souls and possessed bodies as Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), which my father always insisted stood with Shakespeare’s works as the foundation of literate English thought. Consider page 145: “Galen supposeth the soul crasin esse, to be the temperature itself; Trismegistus, Museus, Orpheus, Homer, Pindarus, Phærecides Syrus, Epicetetus, with the Chaldees and Ægyptians, affirmed the soul to be immortal, as did those British Druids of old. The Pythagoreans defend Metempsychosis; and Palingenesia, that souls go from one body to another, epota prius Lethes unda, as men into wolves, bears, dogs, hogs, as they were inclined in their lives, or participated in conditions.”

Frank Browning reports on health, science, and cultural issues for NPR and is the author of six books, most recently Spirits of Desire: A Parisian Romance Between a Heathen and His Priest, just out from Magnus Books. His article “Pas de Deux” appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of California.