I always feel that historians ,anthropologists and archeologists can have a slightly schizophrenic attitude to the dead wanting to study their lives in detail yet mindful these were real people.They are also forced to make decisions of what is and isn’t morally acceptable to share with the online community or display in museum.Posting images online of human bones such as the ancient child below is essential so that other researchers can use the images to compare with similar finds,but on the other hand this was once a loved child of some long dead mother who must have grieved its loss.It doesnt therefore seem right to put it on display in a public space.Should it be buried ? if it was a modern child there would be no debate it would of course get a “decent burial” but its possible if it was buried we would lose the chance to learn more of the age it lived in and for this era in particular there are religious and historical debates ,technology constantly advances and just as we now feel exasperated at lost chances to examine bones such as those of the possible lost princes or Anne Boleyn other future historians might well curse us.
(The skull of “Lucys Child” an ancient skull of a child from the same era as the early hominid skeleton fragments named by its finders Lucy.The skeleton and that of the child is the subject of a massive debate about evolution )
I have been considering for some time what is and isn’t appropriate for historians and archaeologists to study and display and how far researchers can legitimately pry into the private lives of the dead ,Partly because of the Bronte clothing I examined and past work on Digs or work submitted on the ancient past but mostly because of my research on Eva Peron and the recent controversy on where King Richard III should be buried.(I will include images so that readers of this post can come to their own opinions so I would like to warn readers they will be images that they may find upsetting .)
I came to a few conclusions I thought I would share for feedback.
I am always thrilled to know that human remains such as “Lucy”and “Lucys child”have been found on a dig ,,they can tell us so much about the past ,,the life lived ,the diet and diseases of a population .The interest and excitement felt by archaeologists and anthropologists when remains are found is not ghoulish but because they realise the wealth of information now available before them .While documents and artifacts are extremely useful especially grave goods they have limitations too ,writings have usually been written with a function in mind rather than for historical accuracy and can lie.Grave good are more informative but their usefulness limited to the quantity found ,,whereas ,bones can’t lie and even tiny fragments can tell us of a long lost past .The dead can talk and tell us movingly of the times they lived through ,their lives ,their hardships and often their deaths.For example it’s almost certain the individual below was considered to be a possible “revenant” or vampire and buried with the stone to prevent their return from the grave .The posting online of such photos helps other people who may stumble across such deviant burials to understand what they may have discovered and how widespread such beliefs where across time and countries (A case of a supposed “vampire” occurred in modern-day Romania a few year back )
I should not care too much what happened to my own body and considered donating it to be used by medical students but I know this can be traumatic for relatives.While I am fine with being dissected Iam not sure how happy I am while living to think of bits of me stashed in freezers and jars for months or years and passed around in classes and I shouldnt like to think of such a fate awaiting my husband or loved one.
I feel very strongly that human remains for the documented past should be treated with the respect that would have been expected of the people when alive and treated as people and any remains however distant in time and however tiny should be kept off public display.I have never had problems with graves and gravesites as they are just stone memorials and anyone who wants to is welcome to sit lie ,have a picnic or drink on mine ,though I know for many in Whitby or who attend the goth weekend this has become a big issue recently.However I think we owe the actual bones of the dead more sensitivty.I was somewhat disgusted to find Leicester was given permission to bury the bones of Richard III in their cathedral ,I can see logically he has been there for this long and they did run the dig that found him .However the decision seems to be based mostly on profit and the interests of the city .York was barely even given space to put its case and yet the north and especially the area of Yorkshire surrounding York has always been fiercely loyal to the memory of Good King Richard,it has campaigned to promote respect for his memory and to defend his character ,when it discovered Richard had lost at Bosworth and the Tudor Henry was now king it still defended Richards reputation .Richard lived around here ,was raised here and goverend here for many many years
governed here for much of his life and asked to be buried here so he should lie here in peace ,there’s been talk of him “coming home to York ” to give him a “Kings burial “and to” honour his memory” ,,not so we can create visitor attractions.
The choice of the Anglican cathedral in Leicester also highlight another issue with regard to human bones ,the method of interment. Richard was a Roman Catholic and even today Roman Catholics do not take communion with Anglicans or vice versa so burying a Catholic in an Anglican Church with Anglican rites is plainly wrong ,we would not consider it appropriate to bury a muslim in a church with an Anglican funeral service
While I think examining the bones of the dead when they have been exhumed for legitimate reasons or discovered on digs is valid and extremely useful tool for understanding the past and warrants extensive study and publication of findings.I also feel it should be done quickly and the remains then be stored carefully and out of sight if they are not reburied.Exhuming disputed bones such as the children said to be the “princes in the Tower is another moral problem
In such cases exhumation seems valid as it bears directly on historical reputations and also on whether we still need to find bodies or whether the search can be ended .I do however find it disturbing that the Medici graves have been excavated purely to gain information on the Individuals and while on one level I find the information gained invaluable ,the striping of the Medici bodies of their clothing seems very wrong .
I personally cant find any valid reason for publicly displaying any human remains however old but most especially when the identity of the person is known .I am always slightly puzzled that Egypt with its passion for the honour of its Pharaohs should display their bodies in glass cases for the masses to gawk at rather than keeping them somewhere safe but out of sight .
I also find it ghoulish the amount of attention devoted to the relics of saints or on a secular level the mummy of Eva Peron and extremely sad how much the body suffered .Though the need to violate the corpse shows in itself that for many the bodies of the dead are deeply important.
I have been posting on Eva perons life and legacy and having reached the end I am unsure how much of the bodies travels to cover and what images to post ,I think it’s historically valid to cover her death and show the glass coffin as that was public and she had agreed to it prior to her death .Likewise though I admit with some typically modern reservations. I feel it legitimate to show the lying in state or the photographs taken at Perons request of Evas body.It’s difficult as someone living in any particular place to know what images of the dead are appropriate to people living in other places and how much they should be public,I lived for a while in a remote area of Scotland where older residents would expect visitors to visit to view the dead and pay their respects and in many countries “open coffin” funerals are common.
Likewise it’s not uncommon in many part of the world today for post-mortem photographs of the recent dead to be taken and certainly these were a common feature of Victorian life and designed to be publically seen
This is usualy from affection and a wish to have some way to remember a dead loved one,Posting images of the dead for news or for profit seems to me essentaily much less acceptable.
I also think it valid to cover findings discovered by study of the body thats been found or disinterred .In the case of Eva Peron that means the notes made when it was rediscovered as it bears directly on her legacy and emotions evoked by her even so many years after her death .The body was displayed publicly when rediscovered which I think was probably necessary to show it was actually Eva about to be buried .(I am not entirely sure it was wise of the USA not to show photos if the dead Osama Bin Laden for this reason) but I cant find any real justification for showing later close up images of her corpse being repaired or of the damage done to it by anit Peronists
I lastly I considered our attitude to those relatives of the famous dead,I always feel sorry that Princess Diana’s death can still be turned over in the news without any consideration for the feelings of her ex husband and more especially her children.I also can never understand the fury directed at relatives of the dead for destroying their letters,, In many cases it blackens their names to future biographers ,consider the negative coverage of Mr Arthur Bell Nichols, Charlotte Bronte’s husband or Cassandra Austen Jane Austen’s sister and closest friend.
It is surely entirely within their rights to want to keep private ,their loved ones private lives.Its nice for historians when they dont of course.I also find it very odd that it’s often those who are most indiscrete about their past friends or loved ones past lives who we most approve of and like and who gain the best reputations,I again think of the Brontes and the contrasting “press” given to people such as Ellen Nussey and Arthur Bell Nicholls.It seems to be an appalling lack of fidelity to a friend’s memory to hand over their private correspondence.
.Its almost understandable if you were only a close acquaintance such as Charlotte publishers or her later famous friends as she was probably more guarded in what information or views she expressed but it is entirely different when you have known someone since their youth and know that their views and the information relayed would not have been publically shared and often contains information about still living people who can be hurt or at the very least have their own private lives raked over (I know Ellen Nusey removed some names and some lines but there was still adequate information to recognise individuals and a lot of very private details ,,such as Charlotte’s marriage proposals) It’s doubly unpleasant to think Ellen Nussey knew that Mr Nicholls had been worried enough about the letters becoming public to discuss it with Charlotte and also that she only had them because she broke her promise to Charlotte burn them .I can entirely sympathise with Mr Nichols decision to destroy some items especially to ask the wedding dress be destroyed ,it shows again an insight into the likely fate of private items that survived.Which while tastefully displayed at the Parsonage ,lovingly preserved and an invaluable resource for Bronte students ,it cannot have been something he would have liked.
His decision to save other items such as the portrait,the tiny diary papers etc shows he was sensitive to the Bronte legacy but equally sensitive to his wife and her family’s right to privacy.
Which is the more intrusive,to examine and display clothes which will mostly likely have been waving on washing lines or sent to the laundry maid in the big houses or schools where the Brontes worked as ,students Governesses or teachers or publically display private correspondence and does it matter so long after someones death and that of everyone concerned.I personaly wouldn’t care if my undies were in a glass case but I would care about any private correspondence that might hurt others being public.
However I can never feel it’s morally right for loved ones to destroy the work of the deceased if it was written for publication or public performance.I think mostly of the fate of Emily Brontes lost second novel which was most likely burned by Charlotte ,probably because she felt it inappropriate andl ikely to be misunderstood.But there are numerous other cases, the many lost MSS of composers or poets ,it seems to me wrong to destroy the outpourings of the human soul and also to deny history work that had been prepared for it.
(previously;y lost Mss of Beethoven
I am curious on the views of others on this issues.