Living with the dead – notes from the ‘Community of the Dead’ conference – 30/1/14, Cambridge
January 30, 2014 3 Comments
The following are my notes and thoughts from a one day conference organised by Anglia Law School (Anglia Ruskin University) on:
“the contested claims to human remains and our relationship both individually and as a community with the remains of the dead. This conference engages both with this relationship and the practical difficulties of the ever-increasing challenge of full cemeteries and the exhumation of remains in the course of construction and archaeological excavations” (ARU 2014)
The dead amongst us
Carl Jung pictured the collective unconscious, using the metaphor of a house: specifically of waking up to find the dead in the basement. Ian Hodder (2012) has found a real life mirror for this metaphor – a Neolithic civilisation at ÇatalhÖyÜk in what is now Turkey, who inserted the remains of their predecessors into the very fabric of their homes – skulls incorporated into structural columns and the dead buried beneath their homes’ plastered floors. In contrast we in northern Europe rarely visit our basements, and certainly would not expect to confront the remains of our ancestors there.
Whilst the dead vastly outnumber the living, they are usually invisible to us. We only glimpse the dead of generations whose lives didn’t overlap with our own in a fragmentary way. We stumble upon their texts, their artefacts, their graves and – only very occasionally for most of us – their bones.
This multidisciplinary conference looked at our relationship to the materiality of the dead – of our laws, procedures, cultures and technologies as they interface with mortal remains. In these notes I will highlight themes that meant most to me. This account in no way claims to be definitive, particularly authoritative or even complete. It is not a transcript, and reorders the flow of points and, perhaps, finds meaning other than what was actually intended by the presenters.
The conference was advertised under the banner of ‘the community of the dead’ but it quickly became clear that no single community could be ascribed to that title, and indeed none of the presenters figured the dead themselves as being the community in question. The presentations actually accounted for a number of different communities of the living constellated around bones. I will therefore use this multiplicity as a way to present my notes – looking at each presentation as indicative of one of a number of communities of the dead.
Bones and the community of the living
Event organiser, Jane Martin of Anglia Law School opened the conference with a case study based upon her own village and a barrow noticed in a recently constructed municipal cemetery, subtitling her talk “a confusion of bones in our landscape” she set out the quest that she had undertaken to make sense of this strange local hump. Her finding was that the barrow was indeed of recent origin – built by the Parish Council for the interment of the skeletal remains of four Anglo Saxons, from a cache of 60 discovered during nearby housing development works.
For Martin this investigation was anchored in her wanting to understand her place in history – to become more deeply embedded in her adopted local community. Likewise she saw the actions of the Parish Council as that of the living reaching out to the dead – bringing the dead into our reality to make sense of our continuity. This engagement, therefore, was essentially a question of belonging and communion. It seemed to matter little, in this civic plan, that only a fraction of the human remains were being interred in this structure, or that a barrow-style burial would not have been in keeping with the modest 6th century AD fortunes of the village.
Martin concluded that just as ancient barrows were placed into the landscape as territorial markers – using the bones of the dead to make a foundational point about the living’s claim to place – so the ‘new’ barrow was doing just that – making a statement about place and territory in the early twenty first century.
Bones, pipes and wires – the community of function and future
Martin’s presentation was followed, by a contrasting presentation from John Doyle, a Construction Manager working on Crossrail, with particular responsibility for the Liverpool Street element of the project. Doyle’s presentation intriguingly spent much time outlining the elements and aspirations of the complex construction works programme. Through this he revealed a community that deals in change, future and the maintenance of life sustaining urban functions: development and construction. Doyle illustrated the complexity of the existing subterranean realm at the site – of the existing services – the pipes, cables, machine rooms, tunnels and conduits that must all be moved before work on the construction of the new underground station can begin. Amidst images of engineering diagrams, superimposing what-is-to-be upon what-needs-to-be-moved, mention of an area of ‘archaeological’ constraint finally emerged. Thus the 4,000 or so bodies interred in the former Bedlam Hospital cemetery would need to be excavated in order that the utilities could be repositioned as a preliminary for freeing up the three dimensional ‘box’ to be excavated for the underground station – a project element described functionally and dispassionately in project documents as “sterilisation of the ticket hall footprint”.
In presenting the issue of bones in this light, they fell into an entangled relationship (both conceptually and literally) with the wires, pipes and other enabling works. The bones were given no priority, accorded no special level of difficulty or ontology. Doyle did explain the particularity of the processes triggered by the encounter with these bones, but it was this meshing aspect – the bones as just another constraint to be solved – that struck me most.
That, and his – almost tender – description of the fragility of cast iron Victorian water mains, and the great care needed to avoid them shattering when being worked upon. Perhaps this – in contrast to his more matter of fact references to the exhumation of the cemetery – reflected a differential in the level of contact – that others (archaeologists and ‘clearance contractors’ as exhumation teams seem to be known) exhibit care upon the bones, and that he and his construction colleagues are more directly involved in care for the frailty of pipes, the care of adjacent buildings, the care of workers going onto deep excavations and the hazards therein.
I intend no criticism by these observations – I think it’s really interesting that the bones were incorporated into the overall process – they were not seen as standing in some separate realm.
The possibilities that inhere in bone – the Edinburgh University Bones Collective
Dr Joost Fontein and Dr John Harris, both of Edinburgh University’s ‘Bones Collective’, gave a joint presentation each illustrating through field examples (Newfoundland and Zimbabwe) what bones do to people, what they enable, afford, provoke, constrain or allow. They presented these as excessive potentialities – actions that are object forming in the sense that the bones have no stable meaning in and of themselves and become a projection space for a variety of communities and purposes in their unearthing and subsequent attempts to stabilise their meaning, once these “hard enduring remains of humanity [have been] dragged into visibility” for our purposes (whether ethical, scientific, forensic or otherwise). In short, they become embroiled in a “politics of remaking” (both quotes Harris) – both remaking the physicality of the skeleton, as an assemblage of bones, and remaking meaning for the unearthed elements as they pass between multiple hands and purposes.
In his case study, Fontein gave a glimpse of an alien – to us – mode of interpreting bones, with the vernacular exhumation techniques used by war veterans in Zimbabwe, and in particular their use of spirit mediums to identify the bodies, a practice proudly defended in counter to criticism by European observers of their lack of formal forensic expertise with the anti-colonial retort “we use African methods here”. He also pointed to the important role of material culture in the sense making process – that in these exhumations items such a mobile phones found with the bones were richer information about the provenance of the bones than the bones themselves.
Like Harris, Fontein emphasised the processual aspect of bones – that they are caught up in a flow of material and meaning. Their location, assemblies, condition and meaning change over time. As such, their assemblages are made and remade repeatedly. Bones resist stabilisation, they remain unsettled unless and until a final accommodation can be made for them, facing contestation and controversy along the way. Constantly those charged with care of the dead strive to achieve this finality and whether through physical means or conceptual assignment, but slippage remains a potentiality in all cases. The bones cannot be totalised, they cannot be fully laid to rest.
Working with old bones – the community of archaeologists
A number of speakers pointed to the ambiguous relationship between archaeologists and bones, but it was Duncan Sawyer’s (UCLAN) presentation that set this ambiguity – and its essential tension regarding the obtaining and holding of bones by archaeologists in the name of scientific enquiry – to most sustained analysis. Bones have always been seen as research material, but Sawyer explained that it is only since the mid 1960s in the UK that digging up bones by archaeologists has been seen as having ethical connotations, and – in particular – that it has come to be regarded as subject to the exhumation licensing requirements of the Burial Act 1857.
Sawyer charted the course of this recent history, of the evolution of Ministry of Justice guidance and illustrated by reference to projects both the frustration of archaeologists at having to give up research material for reburial and public concern at insensitive treatment of human remains. In doing so he revealed how progressively archaeologists have come to realise that the law does indeed apply to them.
Contestation remains however around how long archaeologists should have for the analysis of excavated human remains, and in what circumstances they might – on the basis of ‘national’ research value – be retained indefinitely. Debate remains around what reburial actually should entail, and whether the requirement to screen exhumation sites from public view serves any purpose – there being no clear idea as to whom that requirement is meant to protect – whether the sensibilities of bystanders or the dignity of the dead.
Bones, flesh and the demands of making and maintaining burial spaces – communities of need
Julie Rugg of York University’s Cemetery Group articulated the world of the policy maker – and also that of burial authorities who must find sufficient space for the dead. Rugg explained that with cremation rates now plateaued at 70% the need for burial space remains a pressing one. Rugg sought to interrogate attitudes both towards the dead, their corpses and also to their decomposition. For her, the stage of passing beyond bones – the eventual disintegration of the remains and their dispersal into the ground of the surrounding burial plot was a part of the process of burial that had least public purchase – the dematerialisation of the dead in their graves. Rugg argued that if policy could better understand this process of disappearance, advocacy of the re-use of graves would be more successful.
This led to debate with Sawyer and others in the audience, who pointed to instances of bones lasting many hundreds of years. All agreed that the contemplation of in-grave decay presented something of a Schrödinger’s Cat conundrum – with decay being affected by so many factors and their being so little research upon it that all are left guessing how long it takes for a grave to fall ‘empty’.
If there was a common thread connecting the presentations, it was an acknowledgment of the processual nature of the ‘life’ of bones – that their status is never final, and rarely settled. They are an affective materiality, loaded with connotations and contest. They speak to something universal and yet are concealed from normal view. We don’t know how to live with them.
ARU (Anglia Ruskin University) (2014) Community of the Dead web flyer: Link
Hodder, I (2012) Entangled – An archaeology of the relationships between humans and things, Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester.
Image source: further excavations at the Leicester car park at which Richard III was disinterred in September 2013: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/29/coffin-richard-iii-burial-site-inside-tomb_n_3671397.html