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The afterlife of bodies: a reply to Tiffany Jenkins

Ken Worpole
11 December 2003

Tiffany Jenkins’s defence of the right of western museums to retain human remains excavated from former colonial territories lacks any kind of historical or cultural perspective, or indeed any sense of trans-generational responsibility. For her ‘old bones, teeth and hair’ are simply that: she says nothing in respect of the former living human beings whose bones, teeth and hair they once were.

In fact taboos against disturbing grave-sites run across nearly all cultures from prehistoric time to the present day. Such is the strength of Jewish abhorrence against disturbing human remains, that even proposals to landscape the sites of second world war concentration camps were opposed for this one reason.

The figure in the rock: body-shaped headstone on Devenish Island, Lough Erne, near Enniskillen, Northern Ireland (Larraine Worpole)

Likewise, contemporary surveys of British attitudes towards grave-keeping and grave visiting show that even non-religious people still attach a great deal of symbolic importance to the grave as a place where the personality of the occupant continues even after death. A belief that the ‘final resting place’ is precisely that remains a powerful consolation in many contemporary belief-systems.

Tiffany Jenkins is obviously keen to strip even secular culture of any hint of symbolic attachment to the consolations of memory and a reverence for the mystery of death. In her ‘scientific’ perspective, people really are nothing more than two euros’ worth of chemicals and water, their human embodiment ceasing to have any significant meaning once the inner spark of life has expired. But that is not how the great majority of people feel.

It is no accident that the bones, teeth and hair (and brains and other organs) required for scientific experimentation, nearly always come from the bodies of the powerless or the subjugated. In the cases she cites, it is from peoples colonised in earlier times. She may deride the belief systems of those whose bones have been collected in the museums of the west, but as one curator has admitted, many tourists and museum administrators too easily forget that “these specimens were once living people with their own cultural beliefs about death and the afterlife which, in most cases, would not include public spectacle or a storage cupboard in a Western museum.” (Jane Morris, “Bones of Contention”, The Guardian, 9 July 2002)

As historian Ruth Richardson has demonstrated in her study of the 1832 Anatomy Act in Britain and the history of dissection (Death, Dissection and the Destitute, 1988), it was always the bodies of the poor which were used for anatomical experimentation, either robbed directly from graves, or delivered straight from the workhouse. Fewer than one in every two hundred bodies dissected in London came from anywhere other than institutions which housed the poor.

Even contemporary scandals affecting British hospitals, shown to have retained the organs of children without consent, demonstrates the scientific establishment’s lack of respect for people’s deepest feelings when it comes to playing around with human remains.

I have absolutely no problem with people donating their bodies and organs for medical research, nor with medical researchers seeking to use human remains for scientific investigation, as long as permission from the family or custodians of the culture is given. Well, Tiffany Jenkins might reply, in the case of Aboriginal Tasmanians, there’s nobody left to ask. This is because the actions of the people who shipped the corpses home, eventually killed off the rest.

I am even a supporter of the re-use of graves after an agreed time period – common in many central and southern European countries – as long as such procedures are fully consensual and matters of secondary burial are handled with dignity and respect.

Georges Rodenbach tomb
The unnerving tomb of Georges Rodenbach in Père-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris (Larraine Worpole)

Finally, Tiffany Jenkins is cynical about the current vogue for “the politics of apologising for past wrongs”. Yet notions of atonement, and of truth and reconciliation processes, are now among some of the most helpful we have in a world in which it becomes ever more important to break out of old hatreds and cycles of revenge.

In this regard, the respect and sense of obligation which people show to former generations, as well as generations to come, is likely going to become more important in future. This is the ethical politics of “the long now”.

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