Berkeley historian excavates tales of the dead

As the son of a pathologist, “I lived in a family in which the dead were present,” Thomas Laqueur tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross in a recent radio interview.

book coverIn the course of their wide-ranging conversation, Laqueur discusses how the landscaped secular cemeteries of today — from San Francisco’s Colma to Boston’s Mount Auburn and Brooklyn’s Green-Wood — are products, ultimately, of the French Revolution.

The French revolutionaries “created the first cosmopolitan community of the dead, which was Père Lachaise — which was explicitly not just for Christians, it was explicitly cosmopolitan,” Laqueur says. “The Russian could lie next to the Spaniard, the Jew next to the Christian” — creating “a new kind of community of the dead.”

The UC Berkeley historian examines the cultural significance of human remains, and evolving customs for their handling, in a new book titled The Work of the Dead.

Listen to his conversation with Terry Gross about the book — and his enduring interest in how humans give meaning to their bodies, living or dead — on Fresh Air.