People, Arts & culture, Humanities, Awards, Literature

Thomas Laqueur's Work of the Dead wins historical literature prize

By Kathleen Maclay


UC Berkeley history professor Thomas Laqueur has won the 2016 Cundill Prize for Historical Literature for his latest book, The Work of the Dead.

Thomas Laqueur, UC Berkeley's Helen Fawcett Professor of History.

Thomas Laqueur, UC Berkeley’s Helen Fawcett Professor of History.

The prize, announced late Thursday at McGill University in Quebec, is one of the world’s biggest international awards for a nonfiction book. It is given to an author whose work has had profound literary, social and academic impact in the area of history.

In addition to Laqueur, finalists for this year’s prize included David Wootton for his book The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution (HarperCollins) and Andrea Wulf for The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Alfred A. Knopf, John Murray Publishers). Finalists were selected from 182 submissions from publishers worldwide. Laqueur received an award of $75,000.

Laqueur’s The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains , published by Princeton University Press, offers a compelling, richly detailed account of how and why the living have cared for the dead from antiquity to the 20th century. It draws on sources from mortuary archaeology, medical tracts, letters, songs, poems and novels to painting and landscapes.

“The contribution Thomas Laqueur’s book makes to our understanding of the role the dead play in life is hugely important,”said professor Antonia Maioni, dean of the faculty of arts at McGill University. “It is a book that will fascinate readers both within and outside the academy.”

The National Post recently published an excerpt from The Work of the Dead that remains available online .


For its fall 2012 issue, California magazine interviewed Laqueur about his lifetime of research around how political and ecclesiastical powers have regarded human bodies, and his foray into the cemetery to consider attitudes and customs dealing with the dead.

Laqueur also sat down recently with a host of The Agenda program to discuss how societies deal with human remains and death.

The Cundill Prize was established in 2008 by McGill alumnus F. Peter Cundill, who died in 2011. It is administered by McGill University’s dean of arts, with assistance from the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

This year’s Cundill jury included Timothy Brook, Republic of China chair at the University of British Columbia; John Darwin, professor of global and imperial history and director of the Oxford Centre for Global History at the University of Oxford; and Anna Porter, co-founder of Key Porter Books and author of Buying a Better World: George Soros and Billionaire Philanthropy, The Ghosts of Europe .