Two skeletons next to each other in a display case

Anthropology: Ethical Considerations and Cases of Displaying Human Remains

What do you want to happen to your remains when you pass away? Many people wish for their bodies to be buried in classic funerals. Others would prefer to be cremated and have their ashes kept by their family members and friends, or scattered somewhere special. A small portion of people are now turning to green burials, where the body is allowed to naturally decompose in a shroud in the ground with no chemicals. However, not everybody gets to pick exactly what happens to their bodies and where they end up when they are dead. While many sets of historical remains have never been located or disturbed, there are plenty of cases where human remains have wound up on tables in laboratories or in display cases in museums. But what are the ethics of keeping and displaying the remains?

Ethical considerations

Source

One of the most common sources of ethical conflict when it comes to the ownership and display of human remains is where they came from. When remains are specifically donated by the decedent or their family members, displaying remains is not that controversial. Just like with any other choice in bodily preparations, if an individual consciously chooses to donate their body for display there are no real ethical questions concerning the legitimacy of the display of the remains. For example, the Mütter Museum, run by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, made headlines a few years ago when a woman named Carol Orzel donated her body to them for the specific purpose of having her bones displayed as part of their collection. Carol had a disease called Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva, which causes soft tissues to calcify and fuse to the natural skeleton. While some people were shocked by Carol’s donation, it was all above board as she did it legally and for the purpose of educating people on the rare disorder.

However, when the source of the remains is less clear or legally solid, ethical boundaries begin to grey. Ethicists and anthropologists are often concerned when human remains are used for the profit of museums or other similar organizations when there is not express consent from the decedent in the case of modern remains, or when, in the case of older or ancient remains, the bodies are not extended the same grace and respect that they would be if they were still a living, breathing being. In essence, if the remains are treated or displayed in a way that could be disrespectful to that person or their culture, then it is unethical for them to be kept by whichever organization holds them.

Along that same line, if there is any question of where the body physically came from, the display of the body, however respectful, it may be unethical for that organization to own them. If remains are taken from controversial or illegal excavation sites, from sacred ground, or from people who were not able to consent to having their bodies displayed in modern times, it is unethical for them to be owned or displayed.

Two skeletons next to each other in a display case
The skeletons of Harry Eastlack (left) and Carol Orzel (right), both afflicted with FOP, on display at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. (photo via The Mütter Museum)

Respect for the decedent

In almost all cases of remain preservation for the purposes of research or display, there is contemplation or concern about respecting the person who the remains came from. This is not just a human issue; in fact, even where animal remains are concerned taxidermy mounts, bone displays, and art using animal remains has been (and remain) heavily scrutinized due to the concerns of some that the life of the animal is not properly represented or honored in the way its body is displayed after death. For example, when animal parts are used to create novelty items, they can be considered to be unethical as that is disrespectful to the animal it came from.

These same basic sentiments are what are generally applied to the preservation and display of human remains. There are multiple ways that these processes could be considered disrespectful towards the people whose remains are being preserved. For one, if the remains are displayed in a way that ignores the culture of the decedent or disrupts the way they wished that their remains would be handled after their deaths, the people who own or display the remains are going against ethical principles that favor the wishes of the decedents. Along the same thread, if human remains are used for art pieces or for displays that are not as much for educational purposes as they are for artistic or entertainment ones, it can be considered disrespectful toward the memory of the dead.

human skull in hexagonal display case
Human skull displayed in private collection. (photo via WorthPoint)

Colonized bodies and older remains

Though nowadays recently donated bodies usually have to meet certain legal standards, such practices have not always been put in place throughout history, especially when it comes to museum or private collections. Unfortunately, many wealthy collectors of human specimens, as well as many museum curators have acquired human remains to display that may have technically been obtained legally (especially when it comes to ancient remains), but capitalize on sourcing from ancient or oppressed communities for profits. For example, there have been many cases where the majority of some museums’ human remains collections have been sourced by taking remains from groups of people who may have been disenfranchised, abused, or colonized during their lifetimes. Examples of this are the use of the bones of slaves, prisoners, genocide victims, or other people from vulnerable groups being used for displays or in private collections, as it continues the cycle of profiting from disenfranchised peoples.

When this happens, issues of respect and sourcing come hand in hand. These sentiments also apply to older sets of remains. Finding and displaying old sets of remains often brings up issues For instance, if (hypothetically) an archaeologist finds the bones of an ancient person on a dig an then those remains are taken to be displayed in a museum, is it ethical to do so? Since the person was obviously not able to consent to the use of their remains, is it okay to disturb them for any purposes, even educational ones? Because this leads to a moral grey area, anthropological ethicists often argue back and forth over the validity of claims from both sides.

female archaeologist unearths a skull in the desert
An archaeologist unearths a human skull on a dig. (photo by Microgen via Matador Network)

Controversial cases

Body Worlds

Perhaps one of the most infamous and controversial cases of the preservation and display of human remains is the Germany-based travelling human anatomy exhibition, Body Worlds. Body Worlds markets itself as a collection of donated remains that were plasticated (a method of chemical preservation) in order to preserve the tissues as accurately as possible to give the living a closer look into how bodies function. Their travelling exhibits have gone worldwide, and are often shown in convention centers across the globe. While generally the exhibitions are educational, and are regarded as such, Body Worlds has faced much controversy over the course of the past decade or so regarding both where they source their specimens from and how they choose to display them.

Beginning in the early 2000s, reports have surfaced revealing that Body Worlds often acquires its specimens through less than ethical means. While some of their displays came to them totally above the board and legally via consenting donation, others have come from a variety of less than transparent or ethical sources. For example, even though the company now has policies in place that prevent them from doing so, quite a few of Body Worlds’ original pieces came from the bodies of executed Chinese prisoners, whose bodies were sold to the company by the Chinese government. Around the same time, two doctors from the Russian University of Novosibirsk were charged with selling over fifty bodies illegally obtained bodies to the program directors for display. These bodies came from prisoners, much like the Chinese case, but also from homeless and mentally ill people. While efforts have been taken to match “donation certificates” from the records of Body Worlds with legal death certificates and the bodies they have on display, there has been no real publicized success in doing so. As well as this, Body Worlds has also come under fire for displaying the bodies in ways that may be considered ostentatious or even inappropriate (i.e. framing bodies in sexual situations, etc.).

These controversies have raised issues as they are considered mistreatments of non-consenting bodies and inappropriate uses of human remains.

skeleton holding heart
A human skeleton displayed holding its own preserved heart in a Body Worlds display in Moscow. (photo by Alexander Avilov via Moscow Times)

 The Mutter Museum

Mentioned earlier in the article, The Mütter Museum is one of the world’s largest collections of abnormal and unique anatomical specimens, and is owned by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Though there are only a few instances of the museum’s collection being scrutinized for where they came from, almost all of the collection has come through purchase, artistic creation, or direct donation by the people themselves, like in the case of Carol Orzel discussed earlier. Most of the criticism of the ethics of the museum come from the way they display their human anatomy collection. Some people believe that while the collection is educational to the public as well as to training physicians, profiting from people who may were disabled or deformed from their abnormal anatomy in death is wrong, even if they donated their corpses. While most people defend the museum’s ethical standards, the display of these specimens for entertainment and profit purposes may be deemed by some to be unethical, and disrespectful to the people whose bodies are being displayed.

display case of human skulls
A fraction of the Mütter Museum’s skull collection. (photo by George Widman via Where Traveler)

The Penn Museum

Also located in Philadelphia, the Penn Museum has recently come under scrutiny due to their admission that an unfortunate portion of their skull collection had come from Black Philadelphians and slaves. Though the museum has over one thousand skulls inn its collection, dozens of them come from these demographics. In April, after publicly announcing their ownership of these items, the head of the museum, Christopher Woods, declared that the skulls would be interred in a historically Black cemetery in Philadelphia because they did not take records of who the remains belonged to when they came into possession of them as the man who collected them for the collection, anatomist Samuel Morton, wanted them for the sole purpose of “scientifically proving” the superiority of white people over Black people. Though the museum was first called out for their unethical purchasing and displaying of these remains in 2019, efforts to make reparations are only just happening now.

While the museum and the curators of the collection have been making plans to inter the remains in the aforementioned cemetery, the relinquishment of the skulls has divided the anthropological community. On the one hand, a lot of anthropologists agree with the museum and a significant portion of the public that the directors of the Penn Museum are doing the right thing in acknowledging their collection’s place in America’s and the scientific and anthropological community’s involvement in the history of racism in the country and giving the remains proper burials. On the other hand, however, some anthropologists believe that while the museum is right in acknowledging the significance of the collection, it is completely ethical for them to own the remains as long as they are using them to increase scientific and anthropological knowledge. They also believe that since ethical stances were different 150 years ago when the skulls were collected, that we cannot apply our same ethical standards today to remains collected so long ago. While the opposition remains, the museum plans to go through with its promises to have a higher ethical standard when it comes to acquiring and displaying human remains.

human skulls on wooden shelves
A portion of the Penn Museum skull collection. (photo by Penn Museum via Philly Voice)

Significance in anthropology

The study of human remains has always been vital in the field of forensic anthropology as they help us understand at both a scientific and cultural basis how certain humans lived and died. Anthropology is heavily involved in the collection and exhibition of human remains for museum collections and other such things. Forensic anthropologists especially rely on human remains in order to do their jobs. However, anthropology as a division of study also has a long history of ethical issues surrounding the handling and “ownership” of human remains. As such, it is important to analyze and scrutinize the ways that museums, universities, and private collectors acquire and display human remains both to uphold ethical standards and considerations in the field of anthropology, and also to give respect to the lives that left the remains behind and are being studied.

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