Waking the dead

Charles 5 Comments


The six hundred year-old mummy of a Ming Dynasty woman, discovered during roadbuilding, is brought up from her grave by archaeologists. 

Does curiosity about the past really justify disturbing the dead? At the GFG we customarily refer to archaeologists as grave-robbers and resurrection men. 



Hat tip to the Funeral Consumers Alliance.


  1. Charles

    This doesn’t seem to be a case of archeological curiosity, as the grave was discovered during road building and would, presumably, have been destroyed by it had the body not been removed.

    On the wider issue, this is one of the few ethical issues that I find it really hard to work through. I am, and always have been, fascinated by ancient history, religion and archeology. I like seeing the Egyptian mummies in museums and at the same time I find it uncomfortable. In the case of the Egyptian mummies I thik I reconcile it with the thought that the whole purpose was to make the name of the deceased ‘live forever’. That aim is far better achieved through the museum display than it would have been by leaving them where they are. The way in which they are displayed, however, could certainly be better….more appreciative of the fact that these are…or were…people and not just artefacts.

    I do believe that there is a genuine value in studying the remains of our ancestors…we can learn a great deal. Is that just self-deception though? I don’t know. We gain knowledge but what is its value beyond being knowledge? Does it make the world a better place? One of my frequent assertions is that we no longer accord enough value to knowledge purely for its own sake…all knowledge has to have a marketable value. Is it bad to want this knowledge purely to satisfy my curiosity? I am not sure, but my gut feeling is ‘no’.

    To answer Kathryn’s point…what if it was my Mum, or me…several hundred years hence. The honest answer is if the remains were treated with a reasonable degree of respect it wouldn’t bother me in the least…but that is perhaps because of who I am, and how I think, and what I know about my mother. (In theory she’d be delighted, but it won’t happen as she is going to be cremated. She wants her cremated remains to be made into a windchime so she can continue to nag me.)

    Having said all that, it does matter how archeologists treat these remains, they are not just historical artefacts. The double standards annoy me. Remains which can be clearly identified as Christian are generally reburried with some sort of ceremony while those that pre-date Christianity are often mot viewed in the same way, almost as if they didn’t matter as much or they were somehow ‘less human’ or ‘less us’. I think there is a place for study but we should also respect the expectations and intentions of our ancestors when they burried the body. When we have completed our study, taken samples and X rays and scans then there comes a time when so far as possible the remains should be returned as ‘King Arthur’ is currently campaigning to do with the ‘Guardians’ at Stone Henge. Where remains are displayed it should be done in a way that is thoughtful and respectful.

    I am not sure what the middle ground here is and I genuinely feel pulled in both directions. It is certainly a fascinating discussion though!

    I am sure that many readers of this blog are aware of Emma Restall-Orr’s brilliant organisation ‘Honouring the Ancient Dead’ http://www.honour.org.uk which has some interesting insights into the issue.

    Right, I’m sure I will have upset enough people by now so…I’ll get my coat.

  2. Charles

    It’s a very difficult and vexed area, Jenny. Blanket views on one side or the other can only be unproductive.

    Hadn’t come across HAD before and have just spent a very contented half hour there. Highly recommended – and Emma Restall-Orr v much a hero to all at the GFG.

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