Laid to Rest: Museums, Human Remains, and Religious Burial Practices

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Yesterday we took a field trip with our humanities class to the Museum of London.  In the Roman London section we came across a display that has great historical significance.  The exhibit consisted of a limestone sarcophagus, the lead coffin inside, and the reconstructed head of the body found in the sarcophagus.  The sign next to it explained that this coffin belonged to a Spitalfields Roman woman and was an extremely rare find because of the well-preserved remains and the high social class of the woman.  The coffin was such an exciting discovery that they even televised the opening of it.   Our professor pointed out that the body was missing from the display. He mentioned that for religious reasons, the skeleton could not be displayed.  When he explained this, I was fascinated by the interplay between historical knowledge and religious beliefs that was playing out in this exhibit.  I had a few questions about this that related to museum policies, religion, and burial practices.  Up front, I have to admit that after much research, I couldn’t find an answer to where the Spitalfields Roman woman is buried and why her remains were removed after once being displayed.  All I could determine is that historians believe she was buried according to Christian tradition; and that because of certain requests made by the Church of England, she was most likely reburied.  This brings me to my questions:

What is the policy on human remains in the Museum of London and how does it relate to religion? What are the benefits of displaying human remains? What are Christian views on burial?

In order to find the answer to this question I found a 24-page handbook on the museum’s policy on human remains.  The handbook explains that there is an ongoing debate on the ethics of excavating, handling, holding, and displaying human remains that is influenced by many things including religious beliefs.   The policy basically says that all remains have to be treated and displayed respectfully, they must not be displayed in the open but in an alcove, and the consent of a relative must be given to display them.   It also explains that human remains can be extremely important to understand ideas like human evolution, diet, use of body parts, and so on. 

I found this interesting as I thought back to the human remains we saw at the British Museum.  We saw a body that was very old and preserved, which gave me the opportunity to witness with my own eyes the way this person lived.  I got to see the injuries he sustained before death, as well as the clothing he was wearing.  Seeing this gave me a better understanding of that time period.  If I hadn’t been able to look at these remains, I still could have learned these things, but I wouldn’t have been able to interact with the body and notice things for myself, like what his fingernails looked like (not to get too gruesome).

The handbook cited many sources for their references, but one caught my attention: Guidance for Best Practice for Treatment of Human Remains Excavated From Christian Burial Grounds in England.   This 40-page document explained some very interesting ideas regarding Christian views on burial and dead bodies. I will just highlight a few:

  • there is a standing committee representing the Church of England that is the advisory on human remains from Christian burial grounds in England 
  • in the Bible, Jesus shows little concern for the human body
  • the use of the phrase “laid to rest” in the Bible suggests that burial is permanent and should not be disturbed
  • caring for the dead shows a respect of life
  • consecrated grounds mean that the bodies buried there are under the care of the church

I thought these points were interesting because although the human body has no real importance in the Christian afterlife, remains are still regarded with reverie.  Also, the “laid to rest” point leads me to question whether or not any remains should be excavated according to Christianity.  Personally, I think we need to lean towards using remains as a source of knowledge in exhibits like the Spitalfields Roman Woman, as long as they are respectfully treated.    

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Remains at British Museum 

Further Reading: 

Roman Woman

Christian Burial

Museum of London

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