At what point does a body stop being a the remains of a person, to be treated with respect, and become an artefact for display in a museum?

(48 Posts)
ProudNeathGirl Sat 22-Sep-12 23:23:39

I met the man who led the dig to find Richard III today and it got me thinking.
How long after death is it OK to dig up a skeleton for research, and possible display in a museum?
I'd hate to think that in a thousand years from now I'd be lying in a glass case somewhere.
I always feel sorry for people who's skeletons are dug up from wherever they were lovingly buried so that archeologists can poke them about in a lab.

I have often thought that Proud. Should Tutankhamun have been sprung from his final resting place?

culturemulcher Sat 22-Sep-12 23:31:24

sparkling me too. I was in the Egyptology part of a museum today and I wondered the same thing... but in the end, I thought that all these people were buried with the hope of an afterlife / immortality. Well, they got it grin

It's not right is it? I hate the way they dig the skeletons up and say ooh it was a young boy who died of whatever..... Leave the dead people alone. sad

TheCrackFox Sat 22-Sep-12 23:37:05

I've often thought that too. If by some bizarre accident I die in a glacier I do not want to appear in some sort of Time Team (no doubt presented by a cytogenetic Tony Robinson) special in a thousand years time.

ProudNeathGirl Sat 22-Sep-12 23:37:30

So it's not just me then!
Just how many skeletons do they need?

At least Rich 3 is going to be reburried, though it hasn't been agreed where they'll put him yet, if it is him.

I shall get a laminated sign for my coffin. 'DO NOT DIG ME UP' Thanks. grin

edam Sat 22-Sep-12 23:43:14

often they are digging because there's a major building project - the ground is going to be disturbed anyway. An archaeological survey is a requirement of planning in some cases. And the remains are treated with respect.

I'm probably going to be cremated, but if I was buried, I wouldn't mind in a couple of hundred years if some archaeologist wants to work out what I died from. A. because I'll be dead and in no position to raise objections and B. even if I'm wrong and there's an afterlife where I have the power to haunt said archaeologist (rather than being in a fiery pit thinking 'oh bugger, wish I'd been a bit less agnostic') I'd approve. Scientific inquiry is a good thing.

tribpot Sat 22-Sep-12 23:44:21

I can understand the testing on remains for research purposes, but surely there is no justification for displaying them in museums? Some of the ways in which the bodies have been preserved may be interesting (I'm thinking more of the peat bodies rather than mummies) but we still don't need to see a dead human who fell into a peat bog a thousand years ago.

edam Sat 22-Sep-12 23:47:10

Yes we do! I saw the peat bog body at the Museum of London - fascinating and awe-inspiring. He's been dead for more than 2,000 years, I really don't think he's worrying about it.

Poor peat bog man. sad

edam Sat 22-Sep-12 23:48:15

(Don't go to the Hunterian museum at the Royal College of Surgeons - many anatomical specimens including miscarried foetuses. Very sad and unsettling.)

DameFanny Sat 22-Sep-12 23:48:34

I'm not fussed what happens to me after - organ donation, cardboard coffin and woodland burial for me and DH.

What really makes me hmm though is the tomb of the unknown soldier in Paris. They picked one of the many unidentified bodies lying around after WWI, and decided to use it as national statement to whatever, without knowing if the poor bloke was willingly there, running away at the time, or a pacifist stretcher bearer for all I know.

Got quite cross reading that bit of history on the tour.

TheCrackFox Sat 22-Sep-12 23:48:42

But the whole indignity of it all. My whole life summed up by the remains of my stomach!

"we've analysed the contents of her stomach and her last meal was a bacon sanwich which indicates she was of the lower orders. Her hair was painted in a variety of synthetic gold colours and her feet clad in a sheep skin boot which indicates some sort of religious worship"

I think there was a pickled foetus at a museum we used to go to as a child. It was disturbing.

ProudNeathGirl Sat 22-Sep-12 23:51:30

His descendants are wandering about somewhere though edam.
I know they're all dead etc. just wondered at what point does it become ok. Obviously not after a year (unless for crime investigation or something).
Is it ok after 10 years, 100, 209, 1000?

tribpot Sat 22-Sep-12 23:52:07

I'm interested as to why we do need to see poor old Peat Guy. I appreciate he's a bit past caring. But why wouldn't a photo, or a replica, do instead?

edam Sat 22-Sep-12 23:53:56

I'd give it a couple of hundred. Just a personal view. I've got a friend who's an archaeologist, do you want me to ask him what the rules are about dealing with remains? I know they have to notify the cops until it's confirmed that the body is indeed Harald Haratha or someone and not Mrs Jane Smith of 53 Acacia Avenue, whose husband claimed £1.5m in life insurance and married his secretary within a month of the funeral...

ProudNeathGirl Sat 22-Sep-12 23:57:40

I would be interested edam.
I think they have to treat remains with respect no matter how old they are, but shy do they have to keep digging them up in the first place, unless discovered while building a multi-storey or something.
Just let them lie say I.

DanceMacabre Sat 22-Sep-12 23:58:34

There is a child's bones on display in Avebury museum (i assume they were found there or at nearby Silbury Hill) and there ahs long been a campaign by pagan / humanist groups to lay it to rest.

It is very interesting - when they dug up St Pancras cemetery to make way for the new railway terminal they looked over, analysed then reburied the bodies. I think most archaeologists have a certain respect for the dead.

Personally it would make my eternity to be dug up by Tony Robinson....grin

ProudNeathGirl Sun 23-Sep-12 00:00:26

Someone who died a couple of hundred years ago isn't very far removed from people alive now. My grandparents' grandparents for example.
I wouldn't want them being dug up. Not for religious reasons, just don't think it's a very nice thing to do.

DanceMacabre Sun 23-Sep-12 00:01:17

I must also say that i don't think there is anything to be gained by bringing up the Titanic as some have wanted....that is very much a grave site to be respected.

DanceMacabre Sun 23-Sep-12 00:02:58
sausagerolemodel Sun 23-Sep-12 00:07:47

I was working in Edinburgh University Anatomy Museum recently and it's full of people parts in jars. There is also a whole body in slices on the wall, and a preserved corpse from around 1800 iirc which had been a dissection subject. After Alder Hey there was a change in the law to protect desecration (in this case by removal of organs) of a body without explicit permission. However this left all the medical schools scratching their heads as they all had jars with bits in going back for years (often centuries), usually with no identity and almost certainly with no paper trail proving consent. The govt decided to pick 1970 as an arbitrary cut off date saying that specimens from before this were considered "historic" (and ok to keep) but anything from after then without specific consent would have be considered unusable (although it was never made clear what they should actually do with these sensitive unuseable samples** ). I don't know how it relates to really old remains though but there does seem to be a code of ethics for archeologists

sausagerolemodel Sun 23-Sep-12 00:13:40

**meant to add, debate ongoing about the idea that, if they destroy an anonymous sample that could otherwise be used for research or study, and it can't be identified anyway, who does it benefit? So do you destroy the tissue? Lock it away? (the same practical outcome) or just carry on using it for students as it was before, in which case what was the point of the Act?

edam Sun 23-Sep-12 10:57:24

Personally I'd carry on using it if it really, really, really can't be identified. I wouldn't leave it to the sort of arrogant people like that original doctor at Alder Hey to decide that. But Alder Hey got unlucky to be the first place the practice of keeping organs from dead babies without bothering to tell anyone was discovered - lots of other hospitals were doing it as well. Probably all of them.

Wouldn't bother me personally if my body parts ended up in a jar in a medical school. I'd be vaguely pleased I was of some use. My Mum was always going to leave her body to medical science until she realised they give the bits they don't use back to the family so you still have to shell out for a funeral. grin But a grieving parent of a baby is entitled to feel very differently about that. My personal views about my own remains aren't a basis for making rules about everybody. (Sorry for the awful pun!)

I've been in a training operating theatre where they were using corpses to train doctors in a new surgical technique. Bizarre. Especially as it was one-armed torsos. They looked like they were doing Saturday Night Fever - one arm in the air (docs were learning how to do a procedure where you go in via the neck, IIRC).

THETrills Sun 23-Sep-12 11:04:53

Is it not possible to display a body in a museum in a respectful manner?

BloooCowWonders Sun 23-Sep-12 11:05:44

I feel just the opposite! Id love to be dug up a few hundred years after I'm buried - they'd be able to say yes, she lived a full life, had x children, could have looked after her teeth a but better etc! It's just a body - not ME at all. That's why I'm not going to be cremated.

THETrills Sun 23-Sep-12 11:06:03

If I'm dead I really won't care if I am being used for educational or research purposes or if I'm lying in the ground.

THETrills Sun 23-Sep-12 11:06:59

Then again my plan is to (depending on how I die) have all the useful bits donated to someone who can make use of them.

edam Sun 23-Sep-12 11:11:17

I'm not sure how useful my bits will be, given I have a medical condition and smoke. Hopefully I'd have given up smoking decades before I die so maybe my lungs will be OK...

I studied archaeology at university and have an MSc in osteoarchaeology (the study of human remains). From what I can recall there is no definitive cut-off point as to when a burial becomes archaeology rather than recent history.

Fwiw the study of human remains tells us a lot about previous societies - from their diet to their clothing, religious beliefs, health, wealth... It wouldn't bother me in the slightest to be dug up and analysed, and it wouldn't upset me to have my grandparents dug up and examined either. Dead is dead, it's not the person you loved whatever your views are on the afterlife.

Japple Sun 23-Sep-12 12:11:12

Father used to take me to the Smithsonian when I was a young girl.Dead people
and body parts in jars,everywhere.I also learned that my own people were ware
Housed there.That made me angry,as I know how sacred their buriels are.I'm
not certain if our "Sandcreek Massacre" children,men and women are displayed
There,I hope not.Smithsonian had their poor bodies for awhile.I am against
disturbing the departed.A Pox on the heads of of those who dessacrate and
Display these once-loved people.

chibi Sun 23-Sep-12 12:13:17

it is ok if they aren't white, and/oor european. then it is archaeology.

if they are white, and/or european, it is grave robbing or desecration


My ds1 has requested that his body to donated to cerebral palsy research. My body will be just a body and they can do what they like after I'm dead.

What bollocks chibi!

edam Sun 23-Sep-12 14:52:51

Chibi's got a point about the past, though I'd hope that doesn't apply today. But in the 'it's OK to display them in public' bracket it's not just ethnic minorities or foreigners - it's also anyone considered 'lesser' by scientists or doctors in those days, including the disabled or poor.

WilfSell Sun 23-Sep-12 14:57:10

In an ideal world, I'd say that point is 'when the person has meaningfully consented' and I do generally believe that ones body should remain determined by decisions the living person made over it, even in death. But there are cases where that is just not possible, so relatives, ancestors, ethnic community etc should have a say. Though chibi's point is a bit direct, she/he does have a point, and decisions should be culturally sensitive. In the West, where we don't have much of a notion of 'ancestors' only an individual 'soul' idea, then the decision is much more individualised...

I think the von Hagens stuff is much more alarming though than digging up archaeology. Even though they have alleged to have consented (what - the horse? the foetus? the families?). I'm still not convinced they are real bodies actually and he's made a shedload of money from a big RUSE...

edam Sun 23-Sep-12 14:58:56

Yes, his stuff is disturbing and I'd like to know more about what the subjects actually consented to.

chibi Sun 23-Sep-12 15:00:26

there have been cases of nations petitioning to have the bones of ancestors returned to them, only to be refused becaused the bones are of scientific interest.


Xenia Sun 23-Sep-12 15:57:57

In my view you are either an atheist in which case as the person if not there it matters not a jot what are done to the bones the day after death evern or you believe in God in which case the soul has left the body and God couldn;t care less what you did with the remains.

chibi Sun 23-Sep-12 16:03:44

if it really doesn't matter what happens to bodies after death, why have laws requiring consent for organ donation then (or opt out clauses)? why have any rules about where human remains can be disposed of? i don't know any cultures that agree with you xenia.

MrsCampbellBlack Sun 23-Sep-12 16:13:12

There was an interesting programme about this on r4 last week here that touches on this subject towards the end.

ProudNeathGirl Mon 24-Sep-12 13:10:54

IMO - it's not so much what I want for my own body after death, or for the bodies of my family. I'm not particularly religious and wouldn't mind being used for research. But in cases where skeletons have been taken out of what are obviously lovingly prepared graves, where they were supposed to lie for all eternity - I think they should be left where they were.

For me, it's the thought that people are lovingly arranged in their coffins, sometimes in their favourite oufit, and with letters and messages, teddies and other personal things. They have a ceremony. The thought that they may be dug up at some point for whatever reasons doesn't seem right.

CachuHwch Mon 24-Sep-12 13:22:38

Interesting thread.

I think that bodies in museums are shown far more respect than bodies in a cemetary, personally. Seeing a skeleton in a glass box makes you wonder about that person: the life they lead, what character they had. In a cemetary, you can have hundreds of gravestones: You don't have that personal connection with every single person laid to rest there.
I have seen the Red Lady of Paviland Cave (who was actually a man!) in The National Museum of Wales a few times now, and it always has someone leaning over it, wondering about that person.
I would be very touched if I could have that amount of respect, centuries after my death.

Appreciate everyone is different, though. I wonder if religion has a lot to do with how people feel about this?

Japple Mon 24-Sep-12 15:38:34

...Now,"Sparkle". You're one with some Respect for others.I like that.

I don't want to be in a glass box. sad

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