Mortal remains

My recent reading material sparked some older memories and led to an extended examination, which is how many of my posts come about, and while such topics aren’t tackled too often by those who promote critical thinking, there’s nothing that should limit the application of such. So, let’s talk about dead people.

Many years ago when I lived in central New York (you know, the few million acres of state that has nothing to do with New York City,) my dad and I went out once to poke around in a neighboring farmer’s field in the spring. No, we didn’t live especially boring lives (I don’t think) – instead, we were collecting Native American artifacts, most of which consisted of human bone fragments.

Since this may raise a large number of assumptions in anyone’s mind right off the bat, let me explain. This wasn’t a known heritage site or plotted burial ground, and had been farmland for decades. Nothing that we found, save for teeth and a phalange I believe, was even intact, due to the long use of the land in the intervening time. To the best of my knowledge, the farmer knew nothing about bones being present – we had initially been looking only for arrow points and stone tools. The field was freshly plowed and had seen recent rains, the best conditions for surface finds. That area of New York was actually pretty good for archaeological work, since it featured fossils from 416 million years ago, Native American history, and colonial artifacts (I used to have a few hand-shaped square nails and the bowl of a clay settler’s pipe, found in our yard.) Once you learn what bone looks like, it becomes relatively easy to spot, and we collected a few dozen fragments, the majority of which were teeth, since they weather better and are easy to spot because of the enamel.

The question, of course, is how ethical this is. At the time, I was unaware that finding any human remains required notifying the police, and I’m not really sure what their response would have been – this was hardly a forensic find, and probably fairly common for the area. But does the collection and keeping of human remains, in the case of museums and archaeological/paleontological digs, represent an ethical dilemma? Should, for instance, the ancestors of the people in question have some say in the manner? Should people have a reasonable expectation of being ‘left in peace’?

We have a particular perspective in this country, in that cemetery land is protected and considered sacrosanct, which affects how we see things; in many other portions of the world, land is at too much of a premium to devote it permanently towards dead people. Reusing burial plots is more common than one might think, and many cultures practice disinterment and the stacking of bones in ossuaries, once the soft tissues have decomposed. More interesting to our perspective are the buddhist ‘sky burials’ practiced in some parts of Asia, where the newly deceased are purposefully exposed to the elements and scavengers, continuing the cycle of use and reuse, perhaps the ultimate in recycling. It’s not hard to imagine how creepy this seems, but we need to ask if this is only because of our culture and the emphasis we place on, when it comes right down to it, saving the wrapper for purposes unknown.

Burial has taken place for a long time, in countless cultures – ceremonial burial is often considered a sign of supernatural belief, which might be reading a lot more into it than is warranted. First off, we identify with the person, the physical appearance, and even when animation has left the body, we’re so used to seeing it that we still feel some kind of connection between the remains and the life it once held, the personality we knew. And we have this thing against death, which is certainly useful, but rather pointless to pursue or worry about once it has actually occurred. We have no reason to believe that what makes up the person we knew is not completely gone at death, save for the cultural emphasis on such ideas, but it seems highly likely that our drive to avoid death hits us really hard emotionally – so much so that we try to find ways to deny it. And so, we worry about what to do with bodies, in the belief that whatever ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ that once occupied them is still paying attention and concerned about their well being.

Burial itself is a practical matter: it keeps away the scavengers, and prevents the marvelous aromas that follow. And, it keeps us from seeing the whole process, which kind of drives home the idea that animation isn’t going to return unless you’re into zombie movies. The same can be said for cremation (well, except for zombies.) These are practical concerns – there isn’t any reason for believing that burial or cremation does something in particular for the soul or spirit that propping in a corner, leaving on the neighbor’s doorstep, or feeding to the dogs doesn’t. Assuming that a ritual was born from supernatural belief rather than practicality seems like it’s ignoring far too much.

When human remains are found, there frequently arises the ethical consideration of what is the ‘proper’ way of handling them, which amounts to little more than debate about cultural influences. Using them to further our knowledge of older people is often considered desecration or disrespect, which is an interesting aspect all its own. The individual, or more specifically the collection of thoughts, memories, and personality that once inhabited said body, is long done with it, and making any claim to some lasting connection isn’t really supportable. Left on its own, the body naturally vanishes over time anyway, unless conditions are specific enough to allow for some preservation. We routinely cut off hair and fingernails and discard them without any rituals whatsoever, and often decide what parts of our body shouldn’t be there, from viruses to cancers. Even from a cultural or emotional standpoint, heeding the last request of the departed is more a sign of respect for their memory than concern about their feelings afterwards, especially when most religions maintain that the physical body is left well behind in the thoughts of the lasting soul. Not to mention the number of devout folk who ignore such last requests in favor of their own personal ideas of what’s right…

Can we say, for instance, that any individual Native American, or member of any other culture, would be upset over their bones sparking interest in their lives, cultures, history, or abilities? I personally love the idea that someone could learn more from me after my death, and even though the majority of my ‘culture’ considers remains to be sacrosanct, using such as a guideline amounts to little more than probability used to obtain a ‘yes or no’ decision, an oversimplification that obviously leaves my personal feelings behind. The amount of information that we have obtained from the study of past (and present) human remains is remarkable, and something that we wouldn’t have if we let ourselves be influenced by the idea that any soul gives a damn.

Moreover, there’s a subtle but interesting idea that I’ve become more aware of when putting some of these thoughts down (that will receive better treatment in a later post): archaeological and paleontological studies almost always emphasize our common heritage, the idea that all humans are interrelated and possess much the same motivations, desires, and traits, with the added recognition that related species such as Neanderthals aren’t half as different as we often believe. And the information we gain from studying them is available (and applicable) to all. Cultural distinctions, such as Native Americans laying claim to any remains on ancestral lands, or any particular religious concerns, always create a dividing line, not just between individuals, but within the pursuit of knowledge as well. The message, far too often, is that these humans have special rights over and above other humans. When it comes down to it, this is only a demand for personal respect, and has nothing to do with the dead at all.

We, all humans, are explorers, learners, and puzzle-solvers – we have an innate drive to further our knowledge and solve mysteries. It’s disturbing that we could actually place this lower in priority than feeding our egos as any religio-ethnic representative, which is a title bestowed only by happenstances of birth and not exactly an accomplishment. In fact, I started this post without any intention of coming down on any one side, but it’s not really happening that way; the idea of cultural privilege becomes more absurd as I write it out. Admittedly, I favor science and the promotion thereof, which tends towards a certain perspective, but the cultural reasons for opposing the studies of human remains (and countless other aspects of science) are flimsy and self-centered. Despite the popularity of movie plots such as the one in Poltergeist, where the re-use of Native American burial land as a housing development led to serious TV reception issues, no one has ever demonstrated any after-effect, good or bad, from treating dead people against any group’s preferences. The affronts and desecration are only what we imagine them to be.

Once I die, there will be no consciousness left to care in the slightest what happens to my old body – yes, I can say that with confidence, because the evidence supports nothing else. If someone gets any benefit whatsoever out of what used to be me, then more power to them, but there will be no ‘me’ to approve or disapprove. I’ve signed my organ donor form, because I think living beings rate higher than dead ones.

But if what was formerly ‘my’ skull becomes part of a vaudeville act, or my teeth or finger bones a necklace, gaming dice, or even totems for some lame-brained religious cult, well, whatever. That’s life – I’m over it ;-)