Bodies of Evidence
Greetings, my friends.
I gather from remarks made by visitors who have come to inspect me in my present abode that some in the modern world find a degree of distaste and disgust in the idea of a human body placed on public view. This distaste is directed not solely at my own auto-icon (in which, as I have elaborated elsewhere, my skeleton is concealed beneath my clothes, and a waxen head substituted for my own), but at human remains in a variety of exhibitions and museums, including those in which the individuals in question breathed their last hundreds, or even thousands of years in the past. I am informed that, in response to such sensibilities, some museums have seen fit to remove such remains from display, and even to assign them for reburial. In my own case, the question is the less contestible, in that it was my expressed desire before death that the corruptible parts of my body should be subjected to a
public dissection, and the incorruptible retained as a public monument; but it becomes more contentious in respect of the remains of those who expressed no such desire, and who anticipated that their bodies would lie in their graves until the Day of Judgement.
It does not seem to me that the world has improved in its attitudes towards the remains of the dead. There is, of course, a very proper revulsion at close contact with a corpse in a state of putrefaction, founded on the natural desire to avoid exposure to the agents of infectious disease, but such revulsion becomes quite irrational when extended to the incorruptible skeletal parts of the body, or to corruptible remains which have been so treated as to arrest the natural processes of decay. The difficulty is that, with rising standards of medicine, health and hygiene, all naturally to be applauded in themselves, your society has become increasingly less accustomed to the reality of death, and unduly fastidious about mortality and its physical manifestations; and I am by no means confident that this ignorance and denial of death is greatly to be preferred to the horror of the imminence of death which existed in my day. In many ways, I would contend, we, who were confronted with death almost on a quotidian basis, had a healthier attitude of mind towards the subject. I recall, when I was a boy at Westminster School in the 1750s, how it was still possible in Westminster Abbey to see, to touch, and even to break fragments off the withered body of Queen Katherine de Valois, wife of King Henry V: she had died in 1437, but her embalmed carcase was taken from its grave in the course of building works in the reign of King Henry VII, and for one reason or another she was never reburied, but was instead allowed to remain exposed to the public gaze, an object of curiosity to schoolboys and to others.
My idea in promoting auto-iconism was ever the utilitarian one of turning the dead to the beneficial account of the living: that is to say, of placing the interests of the living, who possess the desire and potential for happiness, over those of the dead, who have none. The uses for the dead that I envisaged were essentially but two, anatomical instruction and the creation of memorials; but the advances of scientific technique since my day mean that, through close physiological study, bodies and skeletal remains may now be of service to the living in an extraordinary variety of ways, to advance knowledge not merely of the unwritten biography of an individual – of the environment and circumstances in which his or her formative years were passed, of illnesses suffered and traumas experienced – but also, when studied in sufficient numbers, of the diffusion of disease, of the evolution of pathogens, of the past dietary habits of communities, and of processes of demography, migration and anthropology. I have taken a close interest in two archaeological inquiries which have taken place in late years in Spitalfields, within a stone’s throw of my own birthplace in Houndsditch. In the more recent, in excess of 10,000 burials were excavated from the cemetery of the mediaeval priory and hospital of St Mary Spital, and even now are rendering up a fuller understanding of the origins, and the medical and social histories, of our long-dead London ancestors; in the other, undertaken some twenty years since, almost a thousand of my near-contemporaries, who died in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, were excavated from the crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields, and, in conjunction with documentary records which enabled names to be assigned to individuals, were able to provide your world with many new insights into mine, and to supply pathological evidence for the study of disease and environmental conditions in the historic past.
Against such investigations are raised the objections of those who would argue for the rights of the dead to rest in peace. It is an arrant nonsense to suggest that the dead have ‘rights’, but I will concede that it is as well not to upset too greatly the sensibilities of the living. The Church of England, acting in conjunction with a body named ‘English Heritage’, published in 2005 a tract offering guidance on the proper treatment of human remains excavated from Christian burial grounds, which attempts to tread a delicate path between the polarities of opinion. Even the theologians contend that ‘a corpse has no more eternal significance than an empty shell’, although they argue nonetheless that human remains should be treated with dignity. Among the tract’s recommendations, the authors urge that, ‘after scientific studies have been completed’, remains should be reinterred. That is all well and good, but it begs the question of when, in this age of revolutions in scientific methodology, practice and technique, the point of ‘completion’ of study might be deemed to have been reached. Anticipating such an objection, the authors further suggest that accumulations of bones might henceforth be deposited for the intended future benefit of researchers in dedicated stores located in redundant, but still consecrated, church buildings, or in unused parts of churches in active use; and I understand that a handful of such receptacles are indeed now in existence. This nice distinction between unconsecrated and consecrated stores seems to me something of a chip in porridge, but the compromise is one that would appear to satisfy all parties.
The debate becomes still more heated in the sometime colonies of Australia, South Africa and the Anglo-American United States. Here, many of the bodies or portions of bodies which have in the past been deposited in museums and institutions have been those of the indigenous inhabitants of those territories, whose remains were gathered up by European explorers and settlers as if they were mere zoological specimens or curios. In some cases, indeed, they were carried to this country, and placed in museums of anthropology or natural history here. In response to changing sensibilities, many such remains have now been returned to their lands of origin, and entrusted to those who may claim a common ethnic ancestry with the deceased person, for disposal in accordance with local religious beliefs and customs.
Mistake me not, I was never a friend of colonies and colonial dominion, which I saw as a deplorable waste of the resources of the colonial power for scant benefit, but I cannot help but consider that the pendulum is in danger of swinging too far in this new direction. In one hotly contested instance, that of ‘Kennewick man’, a skeleton discovered in 1996 on the banks of the Columbia River in the State of Washington, was declared, after due technical examination, to be some 9,000 years old, and of great scientific interest as the remains of one of the earliest humans known from the North American continent, dating from that antediluvian age when Siberia and Alaska were joined, allowing transmigration from Asia to America. However, the native Americans on whose ancestral lands the skeleton was found, most particularly a tribe named the Umatillas, claimed the skeleton as one of their own, and demanded the right to rebury it without delay according to their custom. The case went to law, and the initial decisions were that the Umatillas had a just claim: only after much delay, vexation and expense did the Court of Appeals decree in 2004 that the bones might be retained for continued scientific examination . Even then, in 2005 Senator John McCain sought in Congress to amend the relevant legislation to broaden the definition of ‘Native American’, so that these and similar discoveries might yet be claimed by indigenous tribes without the need to prove an ancestral link. The session ended without the bill being enacted, and I understand that Senator McCain’s attentions have since been diverted elsewhere, but I think I may say with truth that the contest is not yet over.
Your ever laborious and devoted servant,