Ethics, Human Remains & Richard III

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Ethics, Human Remains & Richard III

Postby shireling » Fri Nov 29, 2013 11:03 pm

When I set out to do this, I have to admit that it was because I felt, well, rather indignant, after having read an article written by a British archaeologist by the name of Howard Williams. I took issue with his opinion, although I can't deny that he made some very good points, and the longer the time I spend with it (having printed it out, folded it into sixths, and toted it in a pocket for a quick read, wherever the mood struck me), I have calmed down considerably. But, I still have a few things of my own to say, beginning with:

1) Ethics, first and foremost, because having moral principles that govern your decisions, before you embark on any endeavor, are the best way to keep you out of trouble.

2) Human Remains, which are, admittedly, the most vulnerable and defenseless, when it comes to being human. Even infants, by simply being infants, have a greater capacity for self-protection than the dead. They, the deceased, are always expendable, always at the mercy of the living.

3) Richard III, who probably figured he'd beat Henry Tudor, but good.

I've never gone to college, which is both blessing and curse. Blessing, because I'm not stuck in one particular mode of understanding - not that all academics are, but that's sometimes the belief - and curse, because I never received the education I've longed for all my life.

What I lack, I try to make up for by investigating as best I can, and hope that what I do find, is honest. Failing that, as far as this essay goes, I do have my own family history with one particular monarchy, a few personal experiences with the deceased, including those on display at my local museum, a fondness for the Plantagenets, in general, and Richard III, in particular.

Since I do like Mr. Williams' layout in his blog-piece and I tend to ramble, I have found it a handy way to organize my thoughts, with a few changes:

Digging up & Displaying the Dead (mine)
The Real & the Shameful Study of the Dead (combined the two)
The Worship of Dead Royals

He addresses Richard III immediately after touching upon '...the ethics and politics of digging up, studying, displaying and reporting on the remains of the dead...' I've decided to include the king with others, next to the end, and I have removed medieval from the topic line, because I wish to address the handling of all human remains, from all times, and not one period alone.

Digging up & Displaying the Dead

The very first deceased individual, I can remember, was my maternal grandmother. I was five when she died from leukemia. My parents took my younger sister and me to view the body. She was in a nightgown, surrounded by flowers, with a life-sized statue of Christ, red-robed and arms outstretched, standing high above the coffin. We had no idea what being dead meant, and within days, our parents realized this, when the two of us, crying hysterically, could not understand why Grandma didn't come home after her nap with Jesus. That was my initial experience with displaying the dead, and while mortuary works is not the specific issue being discussed, it's one that has affected my opinion when it comes to viewing the dead, ever since.

I'm uncomfortable in settings where people have died violently, especially in battle - I feel it, and I can't explain what I don't understand. So, I will never forget my family's trip to Gettysburg, to Arlington Cemetery or that time my husband and I went to the Alamo (we had just moved to San Antonio, and he wanted to go.) You couldn't pay me to set foot at any of them ever again. Now, the difference between those sites and those excavated from other times, is that they are reserved for the dead as modern memorials, not likely to be subjected to any kind of construction. In other words, it will be a very long time before a bullet train is slated to come through or condominiums are built.

At the natural history museum, not far from where we now live, there were originally two sets of remains on display. One, an Egyptian mummy, is still on view, while the other - the prehistoric skeleton of a young First Nation woman - was claimed by the tribe where she was originally found, and has since been reburied. Because of her age and fragility, she lay encased in rock-hard earth, and made me think of a bony Hans Solo, barely breaking the surface of the carbonite. The mummy, also a young woman in her teens, stays enclosed in her sarcophagus, although the casing is broken at the head and feet.

Through the openings, both her braids and embalmed toes can be clearly seen. Alongside her, is a reconstruction of her face, and, because someone took the time to translate, we know her name. She's part of a display, along with jewelry and clay pots - just another thing that somebody made, like the rest of the stuff. And, there's no one knocking on the curator's door to take her home, like there was for the Shawnee girl.

Because it affects me, I stay out of that part of the museum - after all, there are plenty of other sciences addressed in the place - but I understand the value of studying past civilizations. I love history, and it's a given that there are gleanings from excavations that simply must be had, because of the impact it might have on our own knowledge; let's face it, unless and until such items are brought into the lab and studied, how can it be truly known? But, once those poor bones have had their baths and scans, their measurements and density checked, and the skull fleshed out via computer, they have done their service and can return to the ground. There's absolutely no reason, to my mind, why they should not - even if it means finding another space where they can be reverently re-interred, because the site they once inhabited, is no longer available.

The Real & the Shameful Study of the Dead

When I hear the word archaeology, I think hard work, out in the elements in all weathers, dangerous terrain, sometimes in the thick of even more dangerous populations, dealing with officials who may not always be on the up and up, and dedication combined with a deeply held set of ethics. Also, I think theft and greed, lack of respect, damage to human remains and cultural items, and sales to the highest bidder regardless of where these treasures end up. Okay, so maybe I've watched Indiana Jones a time too many - that I'm willing to concede.

But to my mind, there's only one reason why so many remains - medieval and otherwise - are disrespected, and held to be of so little value that they sit forgotten on shelves or worse (and I'll get to what I regard as worse in the next paragraphs.) And that's because these individuals were not valued in life. They were peasants or kings, laborers or clergy, slaves or tradesmen; they were foreigners - fill the blank, fill in any number of blanks that say they were not like us. Not modern, not Christian, not white, not civilized, either by our standards, or perhaps, by even the standards of their own time.

I'm at an admitted disadvantage when it comes to any extensive knowledge about most things, but especially when it comes to this. I could never do the work of an archaeologist, any more than I could be a gardener; I just don't have the chops for it. I've never liked playing in the dirt, which I think is a prerequisite for either job. Add to that this life-long sensitivity toward the pain, suffering and deaths of all people from all times - and, well, you can see why I wouldn't be much fun on a dig...

Take Otzi, the 5,300-year-old hunter from the Italian Alps, for example.

When he was first discovered in 1991, the police were called, because his condition of preservation was such, that he was thought to be a recent homicide (as it turns out, he may actually have been murdered, back in the day, in what we might surmise as 'a perfect crime'.) In the decades since, he's been studied, his clothing and equipment have been, his DNA extracted and some nineteen living family members have been notified of the relationship. But, as of October of 2013, he's still in storage.

Then, there are those who were sacrificed, such as the Bog Bodies, over there, and the Mayan child mummies - Los Ninos of Chile - over here. Los Ninos are not on display; they are at least 500 years old, and are kept frozen, unless someone comes up with an idea that warrants another peck. At one point, there was a failed attempt to revive the intestinal bacteria of one of the children (I do remember reading that - however, I can't recall what the purpose of that was.) Like Otzi and the Bog Folk, they persist in a strange limbo, slowly mouldering away under refrigeration. And, if the scientists, who have grown so attached to them, have their way, they will never achieve their ultimate goal, the total decomposition that most flesh is heir to.

I'd like to think that all of these mummies, were treated well - right up until they died. That the ancient clergy who cared for them, were not cynical, and that, especially, these children, didn't know what hit them, when death did come. Science is not likely to be able to reassure me of that, but that's my hope.

Which brings us to the "Bodies Exhibition", brought to us by China. I can't have been the only one who felt a ripple of horror upon seeing these for the first time. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not an anatomist, that I'm no expert when it comes to human remains. But, there's something about the condition of these cadavers, the attitudes in which they've been frozen - running, jumping, dancing - that. just. screams. youth. From what I've seen (and granted, except for a brief glimpse through the glass at the Cincy Museum Center, it's been mostly photos), they appear young, they appear healthy and without blemish, and, so, why aren't they living?

To this day, this exhibit is still traveling and open to the public, the most recent that I could find was in Atlanta, this past summer. But in July, on the 18th, 2010, The Seattle Times posted the following:

Seattle residents — from anatomy professors to museum directors — have voiced concern over the ethics of such exhibits, specifically because Premier Exhibitions, which sponsors the "Bodies" exhibit, says it can't verify where the bodies are from or that the deceased on exhibit consented to such display.

"I'm proud of this City Council," said Patrick Burns, a Seattle resident and retired union carpenter who became concerned with the issue after "Bodies" came twice to Seattle. He said crowds of people would line up as if they were at a movie theater, smiling and chatting as they waited. But they weren't going to see a film — they were going to see cadavers staged in poses, as if playing football or volleyball, for example. "They had no sense that these bodies were precious human beings to some family," Burns said.

On its website, Premier said it obtained its more than 200 bodies from a plastination facility in China, which received them from Chinese medical universities. The universities received them from the Chinese Bureau of Police. Exhibition coordinators could not be reached for comment.

It's a shame the Cincinnati Museum Center, among others, didn't see fit to take the same road as Washington State. My questions are, what will become of these 200-some plasticized people when the novelty wears off, if it hasn't already? Just exactly how long can they be expected to remain in this state? Is there any individual, company, corporation or church prepared to receive them after retirement? Does anybody care, and, for those of us who do, what should our actions be?

When you get the opportunity, please look up the life and strange journey of Julia Pastrana, 'the Ape Woman', (1834 – 25, March 1860) who was finally laid to rest in February 2013. She represents another two segments of the exploited dead: the different, and the disabled.

The Worship of Dead Royals

In the very late years of the 19th century, or those very early days of the 20th, when Peter I of Serbia was king, my maternal great-grandfather packed up his two eldest sons and sailed steerage for America. Great-Grandpapa, did this, said my mother's sister, Ann, "to keep the king from taking them for his army". The boys eventually arrived in Pennsylvania, and found work in the coal mines of Smock. Anton - my grandfather - died married, with a family of five, at 47, from black lung. My mother, the baby of the family, told me how she crept downstairs to find her father's coffin - supported on chairs, by candlelight, two of his fellow miners as honor guard, one at each end, dozing where they sat. He had died at home. The undertaker took him away, and when he returned, he was in a box - clean, shaved, in his best suit - and packaged for the hereafter. The funeral took place the next morning, and he was buried in a hillside, at the summit cemetery of the little coal town, and, incidentally, where Andy Warhol - also an original denizen of Smock - would be laid to rest many years later.

Ever since I first heard this story, I've felt ambivalent about it. On the one hand, if it weren't for the king, I wouldn't be here. But, on the other,
if he had stayed put, Grandpa Anton might not have been conscripted. Or he might have gotten a job with the supply train. Or he might not have even seen a battle - and if he did, might he not have survived anyway? Of course, we'll never know. But, I do know that when my grandpa and great-uncle were brought here, the first thing my great-grandpa did, was buy himself a one-way-ticket, back to Yugoslavia. I can't imagine how frightened these two kids must have been, how strange and awful to be so far from home; all of my grandparents - with the exception of my maternal grandmother - were born in Europe, and while they could and did speak several Eastern European languages, English wasn't one of them. Anyway, I wasn't there, and I'm a fool to try to second guess the actions of family members, who lived more a hundred years away from me, and under circumstances that I can only imagine. As for my personal feelings towards King Peter, worship is not a word that comes to mind. But I can't escape the fact that he was instrumental in making my existence possible.

That being my one and only personal attachment to royalty of any stripe, I now come to Richard III.

Where he's concerned, I freely admit that I am totally lacking in detachment. But it's never been Richard's status that attracted me to him. I first learned of him from Shakespeare; a friend of mine - who did worship Laurence Olivier - introduced me to his Richard III, over popcorn, one afternoon. I loved it, and this very bad, most evil, sexy incarnate, man I saw on the screen. I thought it was a fable (I was barely twenty by then, and had never heard of him. See? I told you I never got the education I always wanted.) It wasn't until later, that I learned he was a real person. And, it was from that point, that I tried to teach myself.

The demonization of Richard is what I can't wrap my head around. It reminds me so much of the full-out character assassinations against the likes of Alfred Dreyfus and the Prophet Muhammad; there are no grounds for attacking either of them, but that has never stopped their detractors. If wanting to see this man - who was not killed in a fair fight, who was so humiliated after death, and then swept into a hole too small to accommodate him - given the burial he should have had, then what is wrong with that? A great number of folk simply want justice done for Richard, as much as is possible, given how late it is. Is it sad that there's such disagreement over where he should be laid to rest? Well, yes, I think so. But, don't call it worship, because he happens to have been a king and I, among others, give a damn. And it's not only about him, but all who have had their precious dust violated.

(Btw - briefly, since they were brought up - what have the Cambridges to do with this? They're a nice young couple with a sweet baby, and I know, not a few Americans, who would take your royal family over these fatuous demigods in Congress, any. day. of. the. week! With a smile on our lips and a song in our hearts! Sorry, just had to say that.)

It must be remembered, that it is not the fault of the public at large, that hundreds of buried men, women and children have had their final resting places disturbed and their remains abused. They weren't consulted - neither the ancients in the ground, nor the moderns above it. Nor is it their idea, to display the dead, and so fill the coffers of museums. The exhibits are staged, the doors flung open, parents told how educational this is, how much their children will benefit, and, in they come. If you don't build it, they won''s as simple as that. And while it has been a headache, on more than one level, when it comes to addressing the issue of Richard's reburial, I love the fact that his 17th generation nieces and nephews, have joined the fray. Dear Otzi's kin should take a page from them.


Should Richard III have been sought out and exhumed? No, not if you're asking for him as an object of medieval study. As has been pointed out, in the Williams' blog, there are plenty of others who can supply knowledge of the period, and with greater diversity. But, if there's the slightest chance, that an injustice could be righted, no matter how long ago the wrong took place, then that chance must be taken. If nothing else, Richard can be given the funeral he never had, and the burial worthy of a man; there is no reason why he should not have it, and no one should deny him it.

There's no doubt in my mind that all human remains should be treated with equal dignity, regardless. Once finished with, they must be returned to the earth, in reverent fashion. No human remains should be used for profit, without the clear consent of those whose bodies are on display, and when they have had their day, they, too, should be laid to rest, without any consideration beyond the fact that they are indeed, human, deserving of decency.

I believe that's what should be, and simply because, once upon a time, they lived.

"He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God." - Aeschylus

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