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The Care of Elderly Souls and the Rights of Bone Fragments to a Quiet Life

Page history last edited by Yvonne 14 years, 2 months ago


'Honouring the Ancient Dead':

The Care of Elderly Souls and the Rights of Bone Fragments to a Quiet Life

by Nick Ford


It seems that, in advance of the "Honouring the Ancient Dead" (HAD) Conference 2009 in Leicester on 17 October, HAD have been addressing the meaning of respect (apparently regarded as synonymous with 'honouring') as a criterion for the desired treatment of ancient human remains. So far, the best consensus they appear to have come up with is this: 


"Returning to the topic of finding a definition of 'respect' that HAD can adopt, we would like to put the following to you.


The Oxford Dictionary includes the following definitions of Respect:


noun - 1. a feeling of admiration for someone because of their qualities or achievements 2. due regard for the feelings or rights of others


verb - 1. avoid harming or interfering with… if we think of respect in the particular context of the previous inhabitants of these isles, does this not imply that (regardless of one's personal metaphysical perspective) respect for their physical remains should embrace all of the following:


i)recognition of the achievements and contribution made by the individuals whose remains we hold, their place in our history and their role in shaping all we are and the land around us;

the necessity of according the right to treatment of their remains that demonstrates this recognition;

ii)an acknowledgement of their continuing rights to care that avoids physical or spiritual harm as a result of the above?


From this we conclude that display, excessive intrusive physical sampling and non-essential separation of human remains from their original burial context are, in general, all disrespectful and should be avoided."


Do the dead have a right to our admiration expressed by our doing nothing with their physical remains?  Well, it seems to me that you can admire someone for their qualities and achievements, irrespective of what you do to their corporeal leavings. In some cultures, you eat them, for instance. However, we do not know what the personal achievements of the ancient dead were, nor do we have any idea of their individual qualities, except very occasionally in questionable legend or pseudo-history, both of which have often been appropriated to serve some latter-day political or ideological agenda. Admiration is, therefore, not a relevant definition of respect. 


What is 'due regard' in this context? That consideration which an assumed, current, cultural consensus believes to be appropriate?  If so, we have that already, since I think it fair to say that the majority of people in our society don't consider the issue of the treatment of millennia-old bones as having any importance. What right does a bone have? Or an urnful of ashes? What right does a neo-pagan have, or any person similarly espousing a set of socially atypical beliefs, to have his or her views privileged above those of the prevailing social consensus? Is it a principal social duty to do nothing that risks the engagement of the negative emotions of another? 


We know little or nothing about nearly all long-dead people - and generically, what can one say of them? That - just to take one example - the Neolithics are the people who gave us climate change and soil erosion through deforestation and over-grazing? The ones who invented open-cast mining? 


I see no necessity at all of according the right to treatment of ancient human remains that demonstrates this assumption that the remains of the long-dead are inherently worthy of the kind of romantic veneration advocated by HAD, but rather a question of its arguable desirability. I do not believe there is an epistemology of positive recognition of the long-dead, whether individually or collectively, and remains do not have rights, even if their deposition was accorded a high profile (often, quite literally) at the time. Has anyone ever heard of a patient suing a hospital for custody of an amputated limb, or a dentist for an extracted tooth? (And this, with an indisputable right of possession of the inanimate by the animate). 


As for "an acknowledgement of their continuing rights to care that avoids physical or spiritual harm", what is 'care' in this context? Do we mean custodial care, preservation, or what? How would one weigh an assumed individual right to bodily biodegradation, for example, against a countervailing, assumed individual right to bodily preservation? And these against another assumed social right of possession as (e.g.) heritage, i.e. for cultural display and/or scientific analysis? 


We might also ask ourselves what  'spiritual harm' could feasibly ensue, especially in respect of people who are already long dead, but who are assumed still to exist non-corporeally with an ego-consciousness similar to that which they had when incarnate in the centuries-old or millennia-old body of which the remains in question are a residue.   


- I cannot, for one, conclude that display, excessive intrusive physical sampling however that is defined) and non-essential separation of human remains from their original burial context are, in general, all disrespectful and to be avoided, from the arguments thus far advanced by HAD. Display, for all we know, might have been an impracticable but desired option for some of the ancient dead. 


Back to rights again: I think that none of us, as participants in this debate, has any right to assume that any opinion not founded on fact deserves privileged consideration over any other. Legal rights of individuals are frequently unenforceable and may in many cases be abnegated in law in the interests, or assumed interests, of a society generally; moral rights are merely non-consensual opinion whose embodiment in law is subject to the vagaries of fashion in thinking; human law attempts to embody in statute a society's temporary mores - ephemeral truths held to be self-evident but invariably disregarded in the past and questioned by posterity. 


Natural law, on the other hand, is the only unaltering, unalterable law, by virtue of its being permanent truth, and I for one would like to expect such an appreciation of natural law to be what informs the discourse of self-styled pagans. Natural law says to me that all organic life in time disintegrates and returns to its components. I would infer that the vital essence obeys, ultimately, the same law, albeit not necessarily in planetary terms. If anyone thinks they can prove otherwise, I think now would be a jolly good time to do so – preferably before October 17th. Then, perhaps, HAD could move on to discussing whether an overtly speciesist attitude toward the particular veneration of human (as opposed to non-human animal), remains, is really appropriate in these enlightened times. 



Nick Ford is a formerly self-styled pagan who has studied and practised archaeology including the interpretation and deposition of human remains. Despite his reluctance to continue to share a spirituality label with many to whose beliefs and practices he does not subscribe, he nonetheless remains a member of Pagans for Archaeology. The views expressed herein are entirely his own. He does not presume to speak for anyone else, living or dead. 


If you would like to comment on this article you can do so at the Pagans for Archaeology blog.


See also:

Comments (1)

Yvonne said

at 5:32 pm on Sep 29, 2009

Pagans for Archaeology now has 842 fans and 278 members - this suggests that the people who want to rebury remains are in a minority

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