In a compulsively readable book called The Work of the Dead, the Berkeley history professor Thomas W. Laqueur takes as interlocutor not Lucretius so much as the earlier Greek cynic Diogenes—the man who said that, after his death, he wanted his body thrown over the city wall to be eaten by wild animals. And Diogenes was absolutely right, Laqueur argues: As far as science goes, the dead human body is just one more bit of rotting meat.
But Diogenes was also completely wrong, in existential terms, for we cannot find in history an example of a coherent culture that systematically mistreated its own corpses. “We live with the dead because we, as a species, live with the dead,” Laqueur writes. And even by the end of his long, careful book, he can find no better answer than that circular explanation: We do it because we do it. “The charisma of the dead . . . exists in our age as in other ages,” because death has never successfully been disenchanted—not by ancient philosophers and not by modern science.
This comes from Joseph Bottum’s review of Laqueur’s book, but it’s also a great consideration of the lasting mystery of death—and by implication, life.