egyptian-mummy.jpg

Mum and Mummies

Since I don’t have anything to add on politics at the moment, here’s an ethical quandary worthy of Ricochet’s keen minds.

Archeology has provided so many insights into human history in the past couple centuries, but much of that knowledge is based on a practice which seems morally dubious at best. Why is it acceptable to dig up graves when knowledge is the purpose? Why is it acceptable to put long-dead persons on display and take their possessions?

Would you care if, a thousand years from no…

  1. Nyadnar17

    Dead people don’t have rights. Dead societies even less so. I see no moral issue with using the dead and their stuff however we see fit if there is no one alive with any legal claim to them.

  2. flownover

    Very intriguing post Aaron. I just viewed what is allegedly a tooth of Mary Madaglene in the Met in NYC. I have visited the museum in Guanajuato numerous times, the catacombs in Rome. Seen the mess that is the Cairo museum. Worked to reinter anasazi mummies before NAGPRA , to discover that there are over 20,000 sets of remains in universities and museums across America. 

    Guess what, the world throughout history has very little regard for remains, and all the above were continuously ransacked before anybody with a notepad and a degree ever showed up. The only people that appear to care are the undertaking industry that lobby to make sure you have to have a casket and a vault and a plot when you die. You even have to buy a type of casket before cremation. 

    It comes down to faith. With enough you tend to withhold money from the funeral director unless you’re erecting monuments to yourself. Be careful Ozymandias.

  3. Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    Mama Toad: It is totally disrespectful. It reminds me of this monstrosity.

    The Bodies Exhibit… I saw it. Perhaps I’m strange for not even finding it disturbing, but just… fascinating. Not fascinating in a gruesome way, but fascinating because it was able to show so many of the wonderful intricacies of our bodies.

    As for mummies… they inspire awe, wonder at how the person lived… sadness, sometimes. But not disrespect. At least, not in me.

    But then, I was raised from the cradle to think archaeology a Good Thing (I went through an “I want to be an archaeologist when I grow up” phase that lasted a fairly long time) by elders who had little desire to have their earthly remains treated in a traditional way after death. (I’ve thought about leaving my own body to science, but have been simply too lazy to fill out the paperwork so far.)

    I absolutely hate horror films. So maybe I’m just not as titillated as many others seem to be by death, blood, and gore, and I don’t find seeing “the real thing” that disrespectful. Or perhaps I’m just titillated by it in another, more abstract, way?

  4. Mama Toad

    The Bodies exhibit and others like it use bodies from executed Chinese prisoners and were sold to the exhibit creators. I think that is disgusting and that is why I call the show a monstrosity. As a conservative, the idea of communist China, a system that does not follow the rule of law as we understand it, profiting off the bodies of those it has killed, makes me outraged. As a Christian, I believe in the obligation to bury the dead.

  5. Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    Theodore Dalrymple has an interesting take here:

    ….even a work called Dead Dad, a scaled-down but hyperrealistic model in silicone and acrylic of a naked corpse….

    I asked the sculptor whether Dead Dad was his own father, and of course it was. He clearly regarded the sculpture as a work of filial piety, but it was precisely his sincerity in doing so that appalled me. If he had said that he had made his sculpture to exact revenge upon his father, who had led him a terrible life in his childhood, and who had abused him physically and sexually when he was six years old, his motives in producing it would at least have been clear. When respect, hatred, love, loathing, and contempt can call forth the same artistic product, then our sensibility, our power of discrimination, has been eroded out of existence…

    Thing is, I don’t have much trouble imagining an artist reproducing a loved one’s corpse as an act of filial piety. The frailty of our loved ones’ bodies can be quite moving, and faithful artistic reproduction is an act of honor and tenderness. Or it can be. But perhaps I have no sensibility left.

  6. Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    Mama Toad: As a conservative, the idea of communist China, a system that does not follow the rule of law as we understand it, profiting off the bodies of those it has killed, makes me outraged. 

    I didn’t know. I was under the impression that the bodies used were all voluntary donations. That really changes my point of view. Thanks.

    Mama Toad:  As a Christian, I believe in the obligation to bury the dead.

    Being raised by lapsed Catholic-to-Lutheran converts, what I was taught growing up is how unnecessary burial in consecrated ground is for the Christian faith, even that insisting on “Christian burial” is disrespectful of God’s power to resurrect. And besides, graveyards are a waste of space. Really, I was taught this. When my family talked about death at all, this is what they said.

    My family taught me lots of anti-Catholic nonsense. It didn’t take me long to suspect it was nonsense, and now I know it was all nonsense. I admire Catholicism now, even wonder if I’ll convert. But I guess some of those lessons still guide how I feel around dead bodies, even though my thoughts have changed.

  7. flownover

    Chinese prisoners meet unsavory ends in more ways than that. Remember the stories about the ambulances driving them to airports so the organs could be removed while the prisoner was still alive and put on ice as they arrived at the airplane to Hong Kong ? 

    As for the bodies of the recently gutted ? Tossed out on the way back. But the military or one of Andy Stern’s new bff made a quick $10k. The kidney, liver, heart….probably sold for five times that in Hong Kong.

    As for the precommunist chinese, well here is one of the stranger rituals. Hanging coffins off cliffs.

  8. Aaron Miller

    Even if we accept that burial is morally unnecessary — or, at the very least, not sacred — then there is the issue of free will / consent.

    Nyadnar17: Dead people don’t have rights. Dead societies even less so. I see no moral issue with using the dead and their stuff however we see fit if there is no one alive with any legal claim to them.

    This statement at least addresses free will. By this standard, you have no moral basis (though perhaps another) to complain if I were to dig up your mother’s corpse a year after she died to put the body on public display without your consent or hers. Considering that, do you still stand by what you said?

    The Catholic tradition reflects an understanding of human nature as being essentially  both body and soul, material and spiritual. A soul is not complete without the body, like a pilot cannot be a pilot without a plane. We were made to be with bodies, so it is only upon reunification with material being after death that we are complete.

    And so we honor the unglorified body out of respect for God’s great material gift, unique to each.

  9. Aaron Miller
    Sister: In Greece, charnel houses are still used.

    Note that the main difference between these and “mass graves’ (over which there is much ado) is consent.

    I’ve seen the anatomy exhibit, before realizing the controversy, and the same question applies. Does the end justify the means? Or does consent even matter?

    I have also visited a tiny monastery in Rome in which the monks are mummified and bones are put on display. Some of the bones were not merely on display, but made into ornaments. There were even chandeliers which includes baby bones, from I forget where.

    There is a wide variety of practices relevant to these questions, involving a wide variety of people. But of two things I am certain:

    First, knowledge should never be our highest value. Second, societies which honor the dead of strangers and enemies are more likely to honor the living even among their own kind. Like Edmund Burke, I believe a healthy society lives in contract with past and future generations.

    I was able to tie this thread to politics, afterall!

  10. flownover

    Aaron, Decorative arts using remains-

    Am reminded of a walk through the sewers of Paris, where there are hundreds of yards of bone decorations on the walls. A course of arm bones, then turn and it’s leg bones. Collected when they tore up some of the old cemeteries doing the Haussmann redesign.

  11. Gus Marvinson

    When I’m dead I’m dead. Do what you want with the corpse. I trust that Jesus will put the pieces back together when He’s ready.

  12. Robert Barraud Taylor

    I think of archaeological investigation of the dead as an autopsy done many years after the fact.  The good archaeologists–I mean the ones with not just technical skill but more importantly moral imagination–treat the dead they investigate with the same respect as a good forensic pathologist.  In both cases, the question they ask is:  how did this person die?  This can have some major consequences for historical understanding–the case I’m most familiar with being the major dig at Jamestown, which has completely upended everything people used to glibly say about the settlement there.  

    I would have to insist on a major difference between that sort of historical forensic pathology and the bizarre exhibitionism of the “Body Worlds” exhibit, or even the exhibition of mummies (which has always seemed odd to me).  Respect for the dead is not a part of their moral imagination; nor is respect for the body, for that matter, which seems to be the root of the problem.

  13. Valiuth
    Nyadnar17: Dead people don’t have rights. Dead societies even less so. I see no moral issue with using the dead and their stuff however we see fit if there is no one alive with any legal claim to them.

    This statement at least addresses free will. By this standard, you have no moral basis (though perhaps another) to complain if I were to dig up your mother’s corpse a year after she died to put the body on public display without your consent or hers. Considering that, do you still stand by what you said?

    Technically his mothers remains are his property, as is the grave. You digging them up is trespass and theft. So you harm him by violating them, but you can not be considered to have violated the mothers rights in any way since she doesn’t even exist any more. 

    Most archaeological digs were of sites no one claims to own. There are cases where natives do complain about the treatment of findings, and most nations now claim to own the materials of archaeological digs on national history grounds.  In such cases archaeology is done with the local governments consent. 

  14. Mollie Hemingway
    C
    Gus Marvinson: When I’m dead I’m dead. Do what you want with the corpse. I trust that Jesus will put the pieces back together when He’s ready. · Dec 2 at 5:58am

    It’s striking how different this view is from the view of Christians throughout the vast majority of their history. A good book to read on the theological implications of this changed view is Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes by Dr. Alvin Schmidt.

  15. Nyadnar17
     

    Aaron Miller: Even if we accept that burial is morally unnecessary — or, at the very least, not sacred — then there is the issue of free will / consent.his statement at least addresses free will. By this standard, you have no moral basis (though perhaps another) to complain if I were to dig up your mother’s corpse a year after she died to put the body on public display without your consent or hers. Considering that, do you still stand by what you said?

     Valiuth already said it better than I could. In your example, my mothers body and grave would be my property. If you dug them up you would be violating my property rights.

    As to the religious issue, God promised me a new body when He calls me home. He gave me a new spirit after sin killed my original; I don’t expect it will be any more difficult for Him to give me a new body once sin finishes killing my current one.

  16. Britanicus

    This is the best post I’ve read in some time. Well done Aaron!

    My views on mummies, Christian burial, and the Bodies exhibit have all undergone some rethinking.

    I often find that the most worth while posts on Riochet have nothing (or precious little) to do with politics directly.

  17. Leslie Watkins

    I wonder, Aaron, if you have the same moral quandary with autopsies. Many persons of faith, because of the belief in the resurrection of the body, vehemently oppose them. (Not saying it’s a huge issue, just that it does exist for some folks.) Perhaps it’s because I’m not a Christian that I do not care what happens to my body at death. But I think that what it has more to do with is the few open casket burials I’ve attended where the loved one’s body, no longer animate, seemed disassociated from the person I knew. For me, the soul-less body is more like those fully formed but empty insect carcasses, which are fascinating to hold and look at but in no way remind me of the entity once inside it but now long gone, as if for ten thousand years. So, for me, if my bones can tell future humans something about life, I’m fine with digging them up and putting them on display.

  18. Gus Marvinson
    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.

     Gus Marvinson: When I’m dead I’m dead. Do what you want with the corpse. I trust that Jesus will put the pieces back together when He’s ready. · Dec 2 at 5:58am 

     It’s striking how different this view is from the view of Christians throughout the vast majority of their history. A good book to read on the theological implications of this changed view is Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes by Dr. Alvin Schmidt. · Dec 2 at 6:31am

    Jesus never promised to raise up only those who were honored in some ceremonial way after their death. He promised to raise all who were faithful to him. It is the traditions of men, not the traditions set down by Christ and His Apostles, that cloud this and other issues.

    Compare the simple Christianity of the New Testament and the ecclesiastical institutions of today with the simple governance of the Constitution and the administrative state of modern America. People have a way of tinkering themselves into chains after a time.

  19. Misthiocracy

    <devil’s advocate mode = on>

    If the ancient Egyptians didn’t have such&nbsp;reverence&nbsp;for the human body, we wouldn’t have their corpses to study today.

    That’s sorta an argument against cremation.

    <devil’s advocate mode = off>

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