February 22, 2024

When is it ethical to dig up the dead?

Archaeologists are not the only ones asking the question

The bodies of the dead can be exhumed for a variety of reasons, such as criminal fact-finding, archeological exploration, and forensic research. Yet when is it ethical permissible to dig up the dead?

There has been much discussion of the topic in archeological circles in recent years. Archeologist Duncan Sayer, from Central Lancashire University in the UK, has published a book on the ethics of burial excavations. According to Sayer, the permissibility of exhuming a body depends on numerous factors. “It’s not okay to excavate human remains simply because we’re archaeologists and that’s what we do,” Sayer recently told Discover Magazine. He suggests that rescue excavations — where burial sites are about to be destroyed by natural disasters — are definitely permissible. But to justify disturbing unthreatened burials, archaeologists need clear, important research questions that cannot be answered without excavation. It is also irresponsible for any one project to dig an entire site or all its burials, according to Sayer.

Other academics suggest that broad community consultation is important. In an interview with National Geographic, Indiana University archeologist Larry Zimmerman said that the key issue is whether “the stakeholders have a level of say in it, beyond just the stakeholders who are in the scientific community”.

The issue is not confined to archeology. In 2015 the Church of England spoke out against growing trend in the UK of relocating bodies of deceased family for reasons of convenience.

“The permanent burial of the physical body, or the burial of cremated remains, should be seen as a symbol of our entrusting the person to God for resurrection”, a Church spokesman told the Sunday Express. Under UK law,  remains can only be exhumed on the authority of the Justice Secretary or the Church of England if from consecrated ground.

When is it ethical to dig up the dead?
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respect for dead