Monday, 20 July 2009

The case for retaining human remains

The case for studying remains
  • Osteoarchaeology can tell us a great deal about past people, both populations and individuals: what they ate, what diseases they had, where they lived, how far they travelled, what they worked at, where they were born. Putting all this information together for a large number of people gives us a picture of a whole society and the lives of individuals within it.
  • Associated grave goods can also give us a picture of what mattered to the individual who was buried there. Grave goods should remain with the skeleton where possible, as they are an integral part of the assemblage, and may have been intended to accompany them into the afterlife.
  • The more knowledge we gain about people of the past, the more it perpetuates their memory. People of the past wanted to be remembered, that's why they built monuments in the landscape. Also, ancient texts such as the Hávamál talk about a person's name living on after they die (another indication that people in the past wanted to be remembered).
  • There was a lot of ethnic and cultural diversity in the past, and because human remains can tell us where people came from, this prevents fascists from claiming that Britain was ever inhabited solely by one particular ethnic group.
The case for displaying them in museums
  • Neolithic long-barrows were not private; people interacted ritually with the remains after they had been placed in the mound.
  • It helps to perpetuate the memory of the dead person.
  • Museums are Pagan shrines; the name means "temple of the Muses" (okay so the proprietors of the museums may not see it that way, but we can choose to do so).
  • It helps us to understand their culture and connect with them.
  • It might help us to come to terms with death.
The case for not reburying
  • In many cases, the original burial context may have been lost or destroyed. The Zuni (or A:shiwi as they refer to themselves in their own language) people of New Mexico see no point in reburying remains, because disinterring them destroys the sacred context of the original burial
  • Looters might steal the grave-goods or the bones
  • We don't know what ritual the dead person might have preferred (though HAD have composed a useful ritual for instances where museums want to rebury ancient pagan remains)
  • The remains should be stored for future study (analytical techniques are improving all the time)
  • Reburial means that we will no longer have access to the knowledge and memory of the person, and will quickly forget them
  • It is difficult to know which group of contemporary Pagans should receive remains for reburial, since we do not have cultural continuity with pagans of the past (who may well have had very different beliefs from us about the soul and the afterlife, and definitely had different practices from us).


Bo said...

Preach on, sistah!

You're fighting a very valuable and much needed campaign here. As you know, you have my complete support.

Yewtree said...

Thanks, as ever :)

I realised that I hadn't written a post explaining the case for retention in detail, point by point.

Yewtree said...

In addition to this, there's also the problem of Bog Bodies.

The people who ended up in bogs were either sacrifices or criminals or possibly even murdered for their political views, or for some sexual transgression - we don't know.

They probably did not want to be killed and shoved in a bog - so they probably would not want to be reburied in it, either.

Allytria said...

I am pro-reburial. I just cannot find a point to agree with beyond the temporary study of the grave goods and body. Once all study is done, take samples and re-bury it. I do respect your position and intelligence, which is why I read your weblog. But the case against reburial does not sit well with me.

Allytria said...

You have not made your case, I think, against reburial. I looked over all your reasons and I find that I disagree with them. I do like how you present your case with respect and intelligence, so I continue to read your weblog, and I have even recommended it to others.

Yewtree said...

Hi Allytria

The argument for retention is because you can learn a lot about a group of past people from new techniques, like what they ate, where they lived and what illnesses they had, and this can shed a lot of light on their activities.

Anyway thanks for your comment; it's nice to meet a polite commenter with a different point of view.