Thursday, October 04, 2007

Seeing dead people

I was thinking about Hugh Lane's will, and about the different responses of the living: some feel a responsibility to fulfill the wishes of the dead; others think "dead is dead; it's not like they care anymore".

And I don't mean this just in a legal sense. Take the case of Charles Byrne, the "Irish Giant". He was over 7 1/2 feet tall, and died in London in 1783. Byrne was terrified of being cut up and put on display after he died, and begged to be buried out at sea. But when he died, his body was sold to the museum at The Royal College of Surgeons; it's still on display there today.

Now, most bodies in museums haven't had the opportunity to make their wishes clear, and the choice of how to treat them is left up to us. There's an interesting article from last winter's Heritage Council Newsletter about the morality of exhibiting human remains, whether it represents a violation (or in the case of the murdered Lindow Man, exhibited at the British Museum with the garotte still clinging to his neck - whether it's yet another violation). The author, Jerry O'Sullivan (no relation) says:

"The core of this problem is that the treatment of human remains by archaeologists is diametrically opposite to their treatment by society in general. In almost every part of the world, in every period of human history, it has been customary to bury the dead with ceremony, in a special place set apart from everyday life. The dead themselves are regarded with reverence. Strong taboos attach to their physical remains and the places where they lie. In effect, they are put apart and hidden away. Archaeologists, on the other hand, have a lively and pragmatic interest in the remains of the dead. We treat them as scientific material to be harvested, analysed and interpreted. We bring the dead back into the light, figuratively speaking, in our analytical reports and, quite literally, in our museum exhibitions."

It's not an issue that can be neatly resolved - except for the rare instance where the person has stipulated "please don't put me in a museum". With all the public apologies and attempts to set the past to right that have been carefully formulated over the last 50 years, it's odd that no-one has thought to dismantle the exhibit, and let Charles Byrne be buried in accordance with his wishes.

I wouldn't want that preying on my conscience.

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