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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 November 2018

Freie Universität Berlin
Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut, Koserstr. 20, 14195 Berlin,


This essay presents a critical overview of recent literature in English on the modern cultural history of death. In order to locate new developments, it charts the evolution of the field from the 1970s until today and distinguishes between French and Anglophone strands in the historiography. A selection of studies published between 2005 and 2015 exemplifies a revival in recent scholarship that hangs on four main innovations: the abandonment of grand narratives of modernization and secularization; an interdisciplinary integration of political, cultural, and intellectual history; greater attention to the individual; and the expansion of the field beyond Europe and North America. Thus, today, the history of death is both local and global, public and private, personal and universal.

Historiographical Reviews
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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I am grateful to Andrew Arsan and the two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments on this essay.


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13 David Cannadine, ‘War and death, grief and mourning in modern Britain’, in Whaley, ed., Mirrors, pp. 187–242, at pp. 188–9, 217, 230; Cannadine's influence is evidenced by the fact that this quote appears in at least eight major historical studies that were published between 1999 and 2016.

14 Cannadine, ‘War’, pp. 194, 218; Freud, Sigmund, ‘Thoughts for the times on war and death’, in The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Freud (1914–1916) (London, 1957), p. 291Google Scholar.

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20 Mosse, George L., ‘National cemeteries and national revival: the cult of fallen soldiers in Germany’, Journal of Contemporary History, 14 (1 Jan. 1979), pp. 120CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, Fallen soldiers: reshaping the memory of the world wars (New York, NY, 1990). See also Cannadine, ‘War’, p. 230; Betts, Confino, and Schumann, eds., Between mass death, pp. 8–9.

21 Brown, Vincent, The reaper's garden: death and power in the world of Atlantic slavery (Cambridge, MA, 2008), p. 5Google Scholar; Dollimore, Death, pp. ix–xxxii; Faust, Drew Gilpin, This republic of suffering: death and the American Civil War (reprint edn, New York, NY, 2009; first edn 2008), p. 30Google Scholar.

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25 Martin, On secularization, 130; Walsham, ‘The Reformation’.

26 Sung Ho Kim, ‘Max Weber’, The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Winter 2017), ed. Edward N. Zalta, (accessed 27 Nov. 2017).

27 For instance, see Gordon, Bruce and Marshall, Peter, eds., The place of the dead: death and remembrance in late medieval and early modern Europe (Cambridge, 2000)Google Scholar.

28 Walter, Tony, The revival of death (London, 1994), p. 23Google Scholar; Walsham, ‘The Reformation’, p. 521.

29 Watkins, Carl, The undiscovered country: journeys among the dead (London, 2014), p. xviGoogle Scholar.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid., pp. 13 and xvii.

32 Ibid., pp. 75 and 143.

33 Winter, Sites.

34 Watkins, The undiscovered country, p. 258.

35 Ibid., p. 143.

36 Ibid., p. 12.

37 Ibid., p. 577, and personal communication with Carl Watkins on 18 Jan. 2017.

38 For instance Laqueur, Thomas W., ‘Cemeteries, religion and the culture of capitalism’, in Garnett, Jane and Matthew, Colin, eds., Revival and religion since 1700 (London, 1993), pp. 183200Google Scholar; idem, ‘Memory and naming in the Great War’, in John Gillis, ed., Memory and commemoration (Princeton, NJ, 1993), pp. 150–67; idem, ‘Places of the dead in modernity’, in Colin Jones and Dror Wahrman, eds., The age of cultural revolutions: Britain and France, 1750–1820 (Berkeley, CA, 2002); idem, ‘The deep time of the dead’, Social Research, 78 (2011), pp. 799–820.

39 Laqueur, Thomas W., The work of the dead: a cultural history of mortal remains (Princeton, NJ, 2015), p. 17CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Ibid., p. 8. See also Laqueur, ‘The deep time’, p. 801.

41 Laqueur, The work of the dead, p. 31.

42 Ibid., p. 604, and personal communication with Thomas Laqueur on 16 Feb. 2016.

43 Ibid., p. 101.

44 Ibid., p. 184; for a comparison, see McManners, Death.

45 See also Faust, This republic, pp. 61–2.

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47 Laqueur, The work of the dead, p. 448; idem, ‘Memory’, p. 152.

48 Laqueur, The work of the dead, p. 54.

49 Lomnitz, Claudio, Death and the idea of Mexico (paperback edn Brooklyn, NY, 2008; first edn 2005), p. 13Google Scholar.

50 Ibid., pp. 13, 20.

51 Ibid., pp. 264–8.

52 Ibid., pp. 15–17.

53 Ibid., 13.

54 Ibid., p. 57.

55 Ibid., pp. 58–9.

56 See, for instance, ibid., pp. 36, 63.

57 Strange, Death, p. 20.

58 Ibid., pp. 264–73.

59 Ibid., pp. 268–9.

60 Laqueur, ‘Cemeteries’, p. 185.

61 Laqueur, Thomas W., ‘Review of Death, grief and poverty in Britain, 1870–1914’, Journal of Modern History, 80 (2008), pp. 650–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

62 Strange, Death, p. 11.

63 Ibid.

64 Ibid., p. 25.

65 Faust, This republic, p. 2.

66 Ibid., p. 268.

67 Ibid., p. xviii.

68 Fussell, The Great War, pp. 150–1; Faust, This republic, p. 267.

69 Faust, This republic, p. 194.

70 Laqueur, Thomas W., ‘Among the graves’, London Review of Books, 30 (2008), pp. 39Google Scholar; idem, The work of the dead, p. 653.

71 Faust, This republic, p. 30; Strange, Death, p. 213.

72 Brown, The reaper's garden, p. 256.

73 Verdery, Katherine, The political lives of dead bodies: reburial and postsocialist change (New York, NY, 1999)Google Scholar.

74 Ibid., pp. 28–30, 108–10; for instance: Laqueur, The work of the dead, p. 564; Black, Monica, Death in Berlin: from Weimar to divided Germany (Cambridge, 2010), p. 97Google Scholar.

75 Brown, The reaper's garden, p. 258.

76 Ibid., p. 4; Laqueur, The work of the dead, p. 561.

77 Brown, The reaper's garden, p. 10.

78 Ibid.

79 Black, Death in Berlin, p. 1.

80 Ibid., p. 177.

81 Ibid., p. 7.

82 Ibid., p. 87.

83 Ibid., p. 40.

84 Ibid., p. 62.

85 Ibid., p. 79.

86 Ibid., p. 126.

87 Ibid., p. 104.

88 Ibid., p. 151.

89 Ibid., p. 153.

90 Ibid., p. 189.

91 Ibid., p. 106.