There’s a ghastly story in the news today: the story of two brothers in Pakistan who dug up the body of a young woman and turned some of the flesh into a curry.
Predictably, I heard about this from one of the horror posse–and equally predictably, everyone else (me included) jumped in with less-than-tasteful comments.
That’s not the nicest response to such an appalling piece of news, I know. The thing is, how else do you process something like that? Humour is our only real defence against the real horrors of the world–and for all their posturing, horror writers are generally more appalled by these sorts of stories than they let on. After all, they like to think that they can think up worse than you’d ever dream of; things that you couldn’t ever imagine actually happening… sadly, that’s not always the case.
It’s been a day for the dead one way and another, with the release of photos from the new archeological digs that have opened up along the route of the Crossrail construction through central London. There are currently 20 digs in progress, one of which is directly in the middle of the site of Bedlam – or St Bethlem hospital – and its burial ground.
Any major building project in London always uncovers history: the arrival of the railways at Kings Cross & St Pancras led to mass exhumations from the churchyards around the parish of St Pancras, and the Barbican’s foundations stand in the middle of a large plague-pit (part excavated, admittedly, by the Blitz). When work on One Poultry, close to the Royal Exchange in the heart of the City, began in the mid 1990s, the archaeology uncovered was so valuable to our understanding of Roman London that the dig lasted a full two years.
London is built on the bones of the dead: today’s Londoners literally stand on the shoulders of their forebears.
All of this reminded me of an article the New Scientist ran back in March about legislation governing the display & reburial of bodies discovered at archeological digs. It’s an entirely sensible piece: one which recognises the importance of treating the dead with dignity; of returning identified remains to their family (where possible) and the appropriate handling of bodies which have been requested for reburial on religious grounds. But it also argues that we can learn so much more from the long-dead: those whose names have been lost to history.
It is not in any obvious sense disrespectful to display a skeleton of someone long dead, if the display has a valid purpose. After all, in Catholic countries the display of relics, often said to be bones of the saints, is still commonplace.
In this context it is important to note that the issue of consent is largely irrelevant. The long dead cannot consent to be excavated, studied and displayed, but neither can they consent to be removed from their graves to make room for roads and houses. If we relied on their consent we would be living in a static society.
Their names may be lost, but their faces are not. Thanks to modern technology, we can get a good idea of how they looked, what they ate, how they lived and what killed them. Through archaeology, they get to live again – they get to tell their stories; they get to teach and to inspire.
We’re still standing on their shoulders, of course… but this way, we get to see where we come from–not just where we’re going.