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On The Bodies We Bury And What They Leave Behind

This Tuesday, Columbia University was fortunate to welcome Dr. Thomas Laqueur for his lecture “The Aura of the Dead in a Disenchanted World,” as part of the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life’s series Death and After. Bwog staffer Jane Walsh and Arts Editor Riva Weinstein sat in on the talk. 

Dr. Laqueur, who currently teaches at UC Berkeley, is a leading scholar on sex and sexuality (his work includes the titles Body and Sex: Making Gender from the Greeks to Freud and Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation), but the concepts outlined in his book The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains provided the basis for this lecture.

I entered the lecture knowing little of what the title meant, but assured that the experience was going to be a good one. Combine a renowned scholar with a cool and spooky subject, and you’re sure to get two hours of nerdy gold. But I hadn’t expected how relevant the conversation was actually going to be.

Dr. Laqueur began by explaining the significance of the title, and the ideas of aura and disenchantment themselves. An aura, he said, is an emission, like how a work of art can seem to emit something important only by existing. The Ancient Greeks would describe it as a wind or a breeze. It can, however, have less pleasant connotations, an ideal example being miasma (a smell carrying disease), which persists as a concept no matter how many times it is disproved by professionals. Then, Dr. Laqueur skillfully related his ideas of disenchantment to Antigone, coincidentally one of the College’s core readings.

A quick refresher: Antigone defies the king, Creon, by burying the corpse of her brother, who he has forbidden anyone to touch. Antigone lives in a world of enchantment where the rituals for burying the dead hold extreme importance. Contrasting this, Dr. Laqueur discussed Diogenes’ proposal that his followers simply chuck his body over the city wall after he has died. Creon’s treatment of Polynices remains today the grossest of sins, and Diogenes’ request, though logical and somewhat witty, still seems rather barbaric. This analysis would support the claim that we still live in an enchanted world. But is enchantment dying now that the rituals for honoring bodies have become less elaborate? Perhaps they’ve actually been disenchanted all along, or perhaps the dead are incapable of not being so. It’s not an easy query to close.

Dr. Laqueur detailed a number of examples of the treatment of bodies, and these ranged from tragic to ironic. Karl Marx was memorialized in a mausoleum surrounded by the graves of fellow Communist leaders. Eric Hobsbawm’s grave is body-sized but contains only his ashes. What makes these remains, which are identical to any other human’s and nearly identical to any animal’s, important to preserve? Why do we spend money on ornate tombs for what are essentially useless remains shed from the people we used to know?

Yet this becomes an entirely different conversation when discussing violent death. Commemorating the victims of Auschwitz and excavating bodies from the rubble of the World Trade Center are hardly enough to pay tribute to the individuals, or alleviate the pain surrounding these events, and yet they are unanimously vital to our ideals of respect and healing.

Lenin is commemorated in a particularly lofty way: his body was embalmed, placed on display in a public mausoleum, and is almost worshiped, even today. What possible use do we have of it anymore? And yet, who would get rid of it? Compare that to John Calvin, another man of great importance, whose body, per his request, is unlocatable. Or Jim Thorpe, whose body was taken by his wife in the middle of a Sac and Fox tribe ceremony; she looked all around the county trying to find a place to memorialize it, and, in the process, threw it into a conflict surrounding the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). What separates these bodies, differentiates the auras they create, and makes them tell different stories? As the lecture continued, I began to wonder, what of my own?

I have been to six funerals in my eighteen years of life, and I, like many people, think about my own often. We are all at an age where, if it hadn’t been before, death has become terrifyingly real. Whether it’s the kid from high school, a grandparent, or even the student deaths commemorated in school-wide emails, the dead body is no longer an impersonal object, but someone we know and, someday, we realize, ourselves.

When Dr. Laqueur talks about an enchanted body, he means us, our bodies, whether they be whole, burned to ashes, or lost. And yet, perhaps his theory need not apply solely to the shell that life has vacated. Do our bodies hold an aura of enchantment now, in life? Maybe the reason I ponder my own funeral is because I realize that my living body is just as sacred as it will be when I’m underground. And what would happen if we treated the living body with the same amount of awe and respect we treat the dead one?

In conclusion, I have three most important takeaways from the wonderful lecture The Aura of the Dead in a Disenchanted World. Take care of the vessel your soul calls home. Remember fondly those who now inhabit the soil. And never forget that you are as enchanted now as you will be in the days to come.

spooky skull via Max Pixel

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